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Decommissioning requires urgent attention - in Japan and elsewhere

 August 18, 2013

How will Japan prepare for age of decommissioning reactors?



Currently, there are 17 nuclear reactors in Japan that were first activated 30 or more years ago. Among them, three were started 40 or more years ago. Under the principle of operating for 40 years that was included in the revised Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law that went into effect in July, 11 reactors will be shut down in the next five years, and the number will climb to 17 in the next 10 years. Add in the other reactors from Fukushima Prefecture, which has declared it will get rid of its nuclear plants, and the number rises to 20.

Meanwhile, after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, an uncertain future awaits other nuclear reactors like the No. 2 reactor at the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, said to have an active quake fault directly beneath it, and reactors at the Oi, Mihama and Shika nuclear power plants, which are suspected of also having active faults. In any case, it is certain that reactors will need decommissioning in the future.

Decommissioning will not only occur in Japan, but other countries as well. According to the Nuclear Safety Review 2013, put together in July by the International Atomic Energy Agency, out of the 437 nuclear reactors in the world, 162 of them, or nearly 40 percent, are at least 30 years old. Analysis also exists that says the average lifespan for the 153 reactors in the world that have already been shut down has been 24 years. If, like those reactors, others do not last for the full 40-year period, we will see a sharp jump in the amount of reactor decommissions.

How should Japan prepare for this age of reactor decommissioning? Lately, topics that come up regarding this problem are the creation of an organization to dismantle reactors and the possibilities of reactor decommissioning as a business. Different knowledge from that needed for nuclear plant construction is required for decommissioning reactors, like radiation management, waste disposal, and decontamination. It is also a long and expensive process.

Makoto Hasegawa, head of a department of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency dealing with reactor decommissioning, says, "If we assume a decommission rate of around 20 reactors every 10 years, we need a coordinating organization that will gather the needed skills and keep down costs while doing efficient work."

An example of such an organization that has gathered attention is Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). It was set up as a national organ to deal with the decommissioning of old reactors after plants in that country were privatized in 1990. As of January 2013, it had taken control of around 30 reactors and set a plan for decommissioning them. The NDA puts the management of decommissioning up for international bidding, with private companies working under the bid winners on the actual decommission work. An independent supervisory committee watches over the decommissioning companies.

The system is set up so the national government takes on the property and debts of nuclear plants, while using private competition to decommission the reactors and process the nuclear waste.

Would a Japanese version of the NDA be possible? Hasegawa has imagined a variety of versions, such as a nationally-led organization, a private sector-led one, and a mixture of the two. In the case of a nationally-led body, challenges include securing the organization's independence and getting enough help from the private sector. Even in a private sector-led version or a mixed form, though, if power companies or independent administrative corporations became the parent companies in decommissioning work, it could stunt competition.

In the United States, meanwhile, there are cases where a company specializing in decommissioning is given temporary ownership of a nuclear reactor destined for dismantling. That company is involved in decommissioning in other countries as well and is participating in plans for treatment of contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Such activities could serve as a source of reference for Japan as it plans its own decommissioning business.

At any rate, since decommissioning work stretches over dozens of years, talented personnel who will pass on their skills will be needed. "There are those who see decommissioning work as less attractive than power plant construction, but if society can show it as a field where young people can challenge themselves, people will want to do the work," says Hisaki Mori, who is a representative of an environmental information network and knowledgeable on the reactor decommission issue.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party won the House of Councillors election by a landslide, and focus has gathered on restarting Japan's idled nuclear power plants. However, the decommissioning of reactors and the processing of nuclear waste require urgent attention. (By Yuri Aono, Expert Senior Writer)


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