Editorial: Japan’s push to extend nuke reactor life past 40 yrs doesn’t add up
October 13, 2022 (Mainichi Japan)
The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has begun considering eliminating the “40-year rule,” or the principle that nuclear reactors should be decommissioned after four decades in service.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which is responsible for the law enforcing the 40-year principle, has given its blessing to this new policy. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in charge of the stable supply of electricity, will now decide how a reactor’s operating life should be determined.
The 40-year rule was introduced after the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011. And since then, the idea that nuclear reactors will run for 40 years and no more has become firmly entrenched.
The rule was also Japan’s declaration that it was committed to moving away from nuclear dependence by decommissioning aging reactors one by one, reflecting upon the seriousness of the disaster.
A policy shift from the 40-year rule would require national consensus. It is unacceptable for the administration to leave legal revisions regarding safety up to the industry ministry — which spent decades promoting nuclear power — and essentially dictate a return to atomic power. It is also inconsistent with the government’s own Basic Energy Plan, which clearly states that Japan’s dependence on nuclear power will be reduced.
In August this year, Prime Minister Kishida abruptly announced a policy of building new nuclear power plants and restarting existing reactors. This was based on the belief that atomic power is indispensable for both a stable electricity supply and to decarbonize Japan’s energy system.
One obstacle to this is those existing reactors’ service time. Most of them have been in operation for 30 years, and should the 40-year rule be strictly applied, more than 10 reactors will have to be decommissioned by 2030.
The electricity sector and the industry ministry hope to extend those reactors’ operational life to save money, arguing that “40 years is just a guideline with no clear scientific basis.” However, data on accident risks at aging atomic power plants is limited. After the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, it was decided that 11 reactors in Japan would be decommissioned because it would cost too much to implement the safety measures needed to keep them running.
NRA head Shinsuke Yamanaka stated, “We will establish a system that enables strict regulation no matter what the operational life may be.” But is there enough knowhow, and a sufficiently robust review system, to maintain effective regulation?
Even if the rules are changed to allow nuclear reactors to stay online regardless of how long they’ve been in service, this does not guarantee that restarts will go smoothly. In addition to potential nuclear accidents, municipalities hosting the plants have deep-seated concerns about information disclosure and evacuating residents in case of a disaster.
What is needed is an energy policy that makes use of the lessons learned from Fukushima Daiichi. Forcing through political decisions without convincing the Japanese public will only stoke their distrust of nuclear power.
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