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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Japan' nuclear industry not really back on its feet

Source : Financial Times,

By Jonathan Soble - October 30, 2013 8:00 pm


Japan’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics has reminded the world of the country’s many attractive qualities, from delicious food to safe streets and punctual trains. But it has also refocused attention on a sore spot: the continuing efforts to deal with the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.


Two and a half years after the triple meltdown, new failures at the stricken plant seem to be reported each week. Most have to do with contaminated water. Hundreds of tons of water cycle through each day, either as coolant pumped into still-hot reactors, or as groundwater seeping in and out of cracked plant basements.


Containing it all has proved to be beyond the capacity of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the much-criticised owner. Some water has leaked out, exposing workers to radiation and contaminating the sea around the coastal site.


Experts say there is little risk to Olympic-hosting Tokyo, 240km south, but the situation looks a shambles: in a Nikkei newspaper poll, 80 per cent of respondents said they distrusted an assurance given to the International Olympic Committee by Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, that the clean-up was “under control”.


All this has complicated Mr Abe’s efforts to get Japan’s nuclear industry back on its feet. In the months after the accident in March 2011, nearly all of Japan’s 50 surviving reactors were closed indefinitely, amid public anxiety over safety and political wrangling between local governments and Tokyo.


The result pleased many Japanese – slightly more than half say they want the country to go nuclear-free – but left utilities struggling to replace an energy source that had provided 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity.


Power bills have risen by 8-17 per cent, greenhouse gas emissions have jumped, and the cost of importing gas and other fuels has pushed a country that ran fearsome trade surpluses into a persistent deficit.


Mr Abe has been pushing gently but firmly for change – or, in the view of the anti-nuclear movement, a return to a scaled-down version of the pre-Fukushima status quo. Since coming to power in December, he has effectively abandoned a pledge by the previous, left-leaning government to end nuclear power by 2040. Instead, he has supported applications by utilities to restart a dozen idled reactors.


A new and more vocal nuclear regulator has both helped and hindered Mr Abe’s cause. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has been more critical of safety flaws than its predecessors: at least one plant has been deemed unfit to reopen because it is sitting on an active faultline.


Mr Abe is counting on the NRA’s perceived strictness to assuage public fears and inhibit opposition to restarting the plants. Utilities submitted the first applications for recertification in July; the NRA is expected to take until next spring to inspect the facilities, which have undergone safety upgrades, and make its first rulings.


Most expect permission to be granted. Still, even if all the reactors are allowed to reopen, Japan would have just a third the number of working reactors that it had before Fukushima.


More could be put back in service, but experts say at most half are new enough or far enough from Fukushima to be viable. That will keep pressure on the government to cultivate alternative energy sources, from renewables to US shale gas.


“Japan is thinking hard about its energy mix,” says George Borovas, head of nuclear projects at Pills­bury, an international law firm. Japan’s nuclear-equipment builders – Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – have become more assertive in pursuing deals abroad, he adds. Hitachi’s acquisition of the Horizon nuclear project in the UK last year, for instance, put the company in charge of an entire atomic-energy enterprise – a departure from its usual, more limited role as a builder of reactors.


Meanwhile, there is still Fukushima to contend with. Ahead of the Olympic host-city decision in September, Mr Abe’s government began asserting more control over the clean-up. In August, it said it would fund a project to freeze soil around the plant, to prevent groundwater seeping in and mixing with irradiated coolant.


“This is a critical issue of strong interest to the Japanese people,” Mr Abe said at the time. “Instead of leaving everything to Tepco, we need to create a firm national strategy.”


Some are now urging a re-examination of Tepco’s future, reviving a debate dormant since the months after the meltdowns.


Clean-up and compensation costs had threatened the utility with bankruptcy until the previous government stepped in with Y1tn ($10bn) in capital and a promise to underwrite payments to tens of thousands of evacuated Fukushima residents.


Tepco is in effect owned now by the state, but through a complicated structure that allows the company to operate independently. Critics say that has left ultimate responsibility for the Fukushima site unclear, and may have contributed to the string of problems at the site.


Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a senior LDP politician and former chief cabinet secretary, says the government might end up taking clearer control – either of Tepco itself, the Fukushima site or of all Japanese reactors that are to be abandoned rather than restarted.


“I think it’s inevitable,” he said in September.

  

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