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Five to go

January 3, 2014

Utilities move to decommission five aging nuclear reactors



Four power companies plan to open talks with municipal governments as early as this month about decommissioning five nuclear reactors that will reach the end of their 40-year operational lifespans in July next year.

The official decisions to decommission the reactors will be made by the end of March this year, as power companies move to get their newer reactors restarted.

The 40-year limit was defined by the revised Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors, which went into effect in July 2013. However, the operational lives of reactors can be extended by up to 20 years with the permission of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). The reactors have to be inspected, and the extension request has to be made a year or more before the 40-year limit is reached. The revised act included a three-year grace period, which will expire for seven reactors in July 2016.

Out of the seven reactors, the five which power companies are considering decommissioning are: the No. 1 and 2 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama Nuclear Power plant; the No. 1 reactor at Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s Shimane plant; the No. 1 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai plant; and Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 reactor. Kansai Electric owns the remaining two reactors, the No. 1 and 2 units at Takahama nuclear plant, where inspections to have their lives extended began in December last year.

The five reactors likely to be decommissioned were all forerunners in Japan's nuclear power industry. The No. 1 reactor at the Tsuruga plant, which went online in 1970, was Japan's first commercial light water reactor -- a reactor cooled by normal water. The five reactors are capable of producing from 340,000 to 560,000 kilowatts, while more modern reactors can produce around 1 million kilowatts.

The estimated cost of retrofitting these reactors for continued use is around 100 billion yen, and it is unclear whether the four utilities could recoup that investment even if the reactors went back online. Inspections for getting permission to extend a reactor's operational life are expected to become stricter, and many at the utilities believe it would be very difficult to upgrade the units sufficiently to pass these inspections by the July 2016 deadline.

The government has adopted a policy of reducing Japan's nuclear power dependence, and it is encouraging power companies to make early decisions on whether to decommission aging reactors. However, if a reactor is set aside for decommissioning and loses all its value as an asset, its operator can expect to lose around 21 billion yen. To alleviate this blow, the government plans to introduce a system to spread the losses out over around 10 years, to be recovered through power bills.

If reactors are removed from service, municipalities will also take a hit, losing money they are paid by the national government for hosting the reactors, property tax funds from the operators, and maintenance and plant jobs. In its fiscal 2015 budget, the government plans to expand subsidies for municipalities hosting nuclear plants to boost local industry and help them escape dependence on the power stations.

Power companies will be keeping an eye on the government's support policies as they work with municipal governments on how to proceed with decommissioning reactors. Decommissioning decisions may also spur further debate about building new reactors to make up for lost generating capacity.

January 03, 2015(Mainichi Japan)


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