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Tepco hopeful nuclear will regain place in Japan mix

Chief nuclear officer tells of company’s renewed focus on safety, adds the fuel source is both desirable and cheap

Nuclear power still has an important role to play in Japan’s energy mix, despite the upheavals in the industry triggered by Fukushima Dai’ichi disaster in 2011, a leading official from Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the facility, told WEC delegates.

Zengo Aizawa, Tepco’s chief nuclear officer, said the limited role he foresaw for renewable energy in the country, together with the expense of importing alternative fuels to Japan, made the continuing use of nuclear power both desirable and relatively cheap.

“We should develop renewables, but we should not remove nuclear power from the energy mix,” he told a session on post-Fukushima nuclear challenges.

Aizawa said he believed that renewables, such as wind and solar power, could only provide around 20% of Japan’s power requirements at the most, leaving nuclear as an important option for homegrown energy production. He also called for global knowledge to be pooled more effectively to develop safer technology for the nuclear industry.

Japan’s 50 reactors were shut in after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which caused meltdowns in three units at the Fukushima plant, as well as radiation leaks. The disaster plunged Japan into a power crisis. Virtually all Japan’s nuclear fleet has remained off line since then. The loss of nuclear power prompted a switch to other forms of power, largely gas-fired production, converting Japan into world’s largest liquefied natural gas importer in the process. It also caused governments around the world to re-think their nuclear power programmes. 

Aizawa said work at the plant was now being done in accordance with tougher safety regulations implemented earlier this year and that Tepco expected contaminated water held in tanks around the plant would be free from all radioactive chemicals, barring tritium, within two years. He said levels of caesium, strontium and tritium contamination in seawater 20 km from the plant was now back to pre-tsunami levels. Levels in the harbour adjacent to the plant were higher, but, he claimed, were still very low.

The company still faces an uphill struggle to assuage public concerns over safety at the plant, following a series of setbacks in efforts to clean up the complex that has raised concerns over Tepco’s abilities to carry out the job effectively. A series of leaks have dogged work, the most recent occurring last week, when six workers were doused in radioactive water. Such incidents have led to calls for the establishment of a nuclear decommissioning authority along the lines of that operational in the UK that could manage nuclear decommissioning in Japan, including at Fukushima.

Aizawa said that, while the company consulted extensively with government, he believed the Fukushima clean-up, at least, was better left in the hands of Tepco. He cited the company’s experience gained in the process so far, and added that if organisational change were carried out, it would damage the morale of staff working on the clean-up.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has said it plans to make public proposals on Tepco’s future shortly. These could include breaking up the utility, though no decision has been made on this. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, returned to office last year, is thought to be enthusiastic about restoring nuclear power to Japan’s energy mix.

Tepco recently got the green light from the governor of Niigata Prefecture in northern Japan to re-open its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant there. The company has said re-starting power production at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was essential to stave off a rise in power prices in the new year. Any move would have to be approved by the country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is not guaranteed and could take many months.

Last week, 28 financial institutions agreed to roll over a syndicated loan to Tepco of some 77 billion yen ($7.9bn), which had been due to mature at the end of the month, according to Japanese media reports. The company’s main lenders are considering the provision of 500bn yen in financing in December, in a mixture of new funding and loan rollovers.

Tepco is trying to avoid suffering a third consecutive year of losses, as it absorbs clean-up costs and braces for potentially huge costs to compensate residents evacuated from the area around the Fukushima plant.

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