Japan Adopts Nuclear Safety Standards, Readies to Screen Reactors for Restart

In a marked energy policy shift away from a complete nuclear phase-out, Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) on Wednesday adopted new safety standards that Japan’s 48 shuttered nuclear reactors must meet before they can restart.

The independent regulatory body established in mid-September 2012 is tasked with approving restarts. Last October, it deemed that restart reviews would comprise both a safety assessment and a briefing of affected local governments by nuclear operators. The new standards, set to take effect by July 8, consist of three parts: design-basis safety standards, severe accident measures, and safety standards relative to earthquakes and tsunamis.

Among new requirements will be specific countermeasures against serious incidents like core meltdown. Plants will also need to install filtered venting systems to reduce emissions of radioactive substances and create an emergency control room where personnel could operate reactors remotely in the event of a disaster.

The NRA noted in a published overview of the standards that investigations in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011 “underlined certain vulnerability and failures in Japan’s existing nuclear safety systems, procedures, and standards, including a lack of the back-fit system that applies revised standards to existing nuclear reactors.” But Japan also “lagged behind internationally accepted safety principles and guidelines,” the NRA said. “Japan’s position as a country routinely affected by extreme natural crises also forced the NRA to ‘go the extra-mile’ in order to achieve a strict and high level of nuclear safety.”

At least four major utilities—Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co.—may apply for safety screening of 12 reactors at six plants as early as this July, reported the Japan Daily Press.

The country went nuclear-free for a brief period between May 2011, when all reactors were shut down for inspection, and July 2011, after restart of Ohi Units 3 and 4, but it has struggled to meet normal year demand peaks. At times, the government has been compelled to force power saving by invoking the Electricity Business Act. Only the two Ohi reactors are operational to date.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Cabinet on Friday approved an annual energy white paper that records the country’s energy policy achievements from August 2012 to March 2013. The so-called “2013 Annual Report on Energy” is in Japanese. According to news agency Kyodo, however, the report prepared by the December-elected Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) skips reference to the Democratic Party of Japan’s energy strategy to phase out nuclear power in light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The agency reports that the zero-nuclear goal shows up in the white paper only once—as part of a quote by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticizing the energy strategy.

When elected in a landslide victory in December, Prime Minister Abe called for a review of plans to phase out nuclear power in Japan by 2030—as previously recommended by the Democratic Party of Japan, though not endorsed by the Cabinet—endorsing instead the construction of new, safer nuclear power plants.

The LDP has more recently called for existing nuclear reactors to be restarted as soon as the new NRA confirms their safety, expected within three years. Longer-term goals call for a determination of the best energy mix for Japan within the next 10 years, after a general evaluation of how renewables perform. Installation of renewables in Japan has taken off after a feed-in-tariff system was introduced last July.

Geographically isolated Japan has always lacked natural resources and must import 95% of its energy needs. According to CEO of Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics Masakazu Toyoda, the new administration led by the LDP “has been taking a cautious approach to determine a new energy mix.” But he notes that at least four future energy scenarios are still under discussion by the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, including those that envision nuclear’s share at 0%, 15%, 20%–25%, and 35%. All scenarios foresee renewables taking a 25%–35% share, though the share of fossil-fired generation could rise to 50% if the 0% nuclear option is pursued, Toyoda told attendees at a seminar at Tokyo University on May 28.

The 0% nuclear option would not just withdraw Japan from international efforts to combat global warming, it also could impact the economy, weaken energy security, and affect relationships with the U.S., UK, and France, which whom the nation has cooperated for decades to develop nuclear technology, Toyoda said.

What is certain is that a return to nuclear power for Japan would mean “abandoning safety myths,” Toyoda said.

Sources: POWERnews, POWER, NRA, METI, IEE, Japan Daily Press, Kyodo

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

NOTE: This story was originally published on June 19