EDITORIAL: Extending life of nuclear reactors should not be left solely up to utilities
Japan’s nuclear regulator has endorsed the safety of two reactors that have been in service for more than four decades.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced on Feb. 24 that the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture meet the new safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The NRA’s verdict has opened the door to an extension of the operating lives of the aging reactors to up to 60 years, one of Kansai Electric’s key goals for its nuclear power generation.
A revision to a law following the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has set the legal life of nuclear reactors at 40 years. But one extension by up to 20 years is allowed with NRA approval.
To extend the operational lives of the two reactors, the operator must receive several approvals from the NRA. If the NRA decides that the reactors have fulfilled all the related criteria, this will become the first case of an extension of the legal life of reactors under the new system.
The 40-year limit was introduced by the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power when the nuclear disaster occurred, to demonstrate its commitment to weaning Japan from its dependence on atomic energy. It was aimed at ensuring a steady phasing out of nuclear power generation through the decommissioning of aging reactors.
The provision for an extension of the life span was added in response to concerns about possible power shortages due to insufficient capacity.
But no specific rules have been set with regard to what kind of circumstances should justify permitting extended operations.
What is vital for electric utilities is the economic viability of their nuclear power plants. Five small reactors that are not sufficiently cost-effective under the 40-year limit on operations have been set for retirement.
Of the remaining 43 reactors, 18 units have been in service for more than 30 years. Utilities will apply for permission to run aging reactors beyond the 40-year legal life span if it makes economic sense. Some applications for a longer license have already been filed with the NRA.
If an extension of the legal life of reactors is approved one after another, the 40-year limit could become meaningless.
With such decisions, we are concerned that the government’s nuclear energy policy and the energy future of this nation are being defined under the initiative of electric utilities focused on generating profits.
Where is the political will that transcends the profit equations of power suppliers?
If aging reactors are allowed to exceed the 40-year life span in rapid succession, the disturbing safety risk posed by a thick cluster of reactors in Fukui Prefecture will not be reduced.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly pledged to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible. The government should make it clear that an extension can be made as an exception.
Before the harrowing nuclear accident, there was no legal life for nuclear reactors. Initially, electric power companies said the operational life of their reactors was around 30 to 40 years.
Later, the former nuclear regulator, which has been replaced by the NRA, introduced a system that allowed utilities to operate reactors for up to 60 years if they submit maintenance plans every 10 years after the 30th year of service. The regulator cited progress in analysis technology as the reason for extending operational licenses for reactors.
The previous government’s decision to replace this system with the new 40-year rule reflected its will to phase out nuclear power generation in this nation.
Immediately after assuming the post, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka was skeptical about extending the life of reactors, saying it was “considerably difficult.”
In assessing the safety measures Kansai Electric has taken for the reactors at the Takahama plant, however, the NRA has given the green light to the utility’s plan to cover electric cables with a fire-resistant sheet where it is difficult to replace them with flame-retardant cables.
The NRA’s move has greatly encouraged utilities seeking to gain permission to run reactors past the 40-year limit because this has been a major technical obstacle to meeting the safety standards.
In his policy speech at the beginning of the current Diet session in January, Abe made no reference to nuclear power generation. Does this indicate that the government will not do anything to stop the growing trend toward longer-term reactor operations?
If so, the government will act against both the past words of the prime minister concerning the issue and the wishes of many Japanese to see their nation free from nuclear energy.