10 Septembre 2014
In what should be described as an outrageously belated move, Kansai Electric Power Co. has begun considering decommissioning the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at its Mihama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Both are aged reactors that have been in service for more than 40 years. Moreover, a fault line runs underneath the site of the reactors.
Decommissioning the two reactors is the reasonable choice, and Kansai Electric should swiftly make the formal decision.
In response to the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, a revision has been made to the law regulating nuclear reactors to limit the life of nuclear reactors to 40 years in principle.
In addition, tighter nuclear safety standards have been introduced. These regulatory changes should serve as strong incentives for utilities to decommission aged reactors and those that demand huge investments to meet the new safety standards.
Even so, TEPCO’s decision to decommission the No. 1 through No. 6 reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 plant has so far been the only move to scrap reactors.
Nuclear reactors cannot be made safe against accidents and terrorist attacks unless they are decommissioned and the nuclear fuel rods are removed for disposal.
Japan currently has 48 reactors, including the ones at the Mihama plant.
Many of them appear to have little chance of being restarted. Other electric utilities should take their cues from Kansai Electric’s move concerning the reactors at the Mihama plant and start thinking seriously about decommissioning such reactors.
Deciding to remove these reactors from service, however, won’t solve everything.
Decommissioning a reactor requires huge sums. Utilities have set aside part of the money they collect from customers for covering the related costs. But their reserves may not be sufficient in some cases.
The economy ministry has proposed a system to secure necessary funds by setting standard prices for electricity produced with nuclear power. But the envisioned system could end up serving as a plan to promote nuclear power generation by also financing the costs of building new nuclear power plants or expanding existing ones.
It is necessary to come up with a workable plan to secure funds to be used exclusively for decommissioning reactors.
A more serious problem is the tremendous amount of radioactive waste that would be produced in the decommissioning process.
Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture terminated its operation in 1998, and became the nation’s first commercial nuclear power station to be decommissioned.
The start of work to dismantle the reactor at the plant was originally slated to begin in the current fiscal year. But last year, the company moved back the date for completing the decommissioning process by five years to fiscal 2025.
So-called low-level radioactive waste produced in the process, such as structural parts of the reactors, will be buried 50 to 100 meters underground, according to the company’s plan. But the location of the disposal facility has yet to be determined.
Standards for securing safety at the disposal facility also have not been established.
This is not just a problem of the Tokai plant. In Japan, no decision has been made as to how and where to dispose of various categories of radioactive waste, from spent nuclear fuel to reactor parts.
The current situation could force utilities to keep such waste within the premises of existing nuclear plants.
The Abe administration has been focusing its nuclear power policy efforts on restarting offline reactors while doing little to make necessary preparations for decommissioning reactors.
It is urgently needed to tackle the raft of challenges related to reactor decommissioning, most notably the problem of radioactive waste, irrespective of whether the government is seeking to promote or phase out nuclear power.
The government should confront these challenges and make all-out efforts to solve them.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 6