Japan’s Nuclear Infrastructure

This overview of Japan’s nuclear fleet is a web supplement to the June 2012 feature “Japan Scrambles to Revamp Its Electricity Sector.” For a list of major Japanese generating companies, see Figure 1 in that article.

As of May this year, Japan had 50 working reactors totaling 44,642 MWe; however, all were offline for inspection by May 5. (See p. 17 of the latest Electricity Review, published annually by the Federation of Power Electric Companies of Japan (FEPC), for a full list and map of Japan’s major generating stations.)

In 2010, the first of Japan’s reactors reached its 40-year operational mark, prompting regulators to approve an extension for Japan Atomic Power Co.’s 357-MW Tsuruga Unit 1. The extension allows it to continue operating to 2016, due to two new 1,538-MW units at that site being delayed. The approval was followed by a 10-year license extension for the utility’s Mihama-1 pressurized water reactor; Kansai in July 2011 also applied for a life extension for Mihama Unit 2.

In February 2011, just days before the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s (TEPCO’s) Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) granted a 10-year license extension to that plant after technical review and some modifications that had been made in 2010. Now the Fukushima Daiichi units will be decommissioned, removing 2,719 MW from the country’s nuclear fleet.

Japan also had two advanced boiling water reactors (ABWRs) under construction, though construction on both was halted following the Fukushima crisis. Chugoku’s Shimane 3 reactor was scheduled to be operational in March 2012, and Electric Power Development Co.’s Ohma 1 would have come online in November 2014.

Before the quake, 15 reactors had been planned, including two ABWRs for TEPCO’s six-unit Fukushima Daiichi site that would have begun construction in April 2012. After Fukushima, TEPCO also deferred construction of its planned Higashidori 1 ABWR. It’s unclear if Chugoku’s planned Kaminoseki 1 and Kyushi’s Sendai 3, both advanced pressurized water reactors, will be built. About a dozen reactors, totaling 16.5 GW, remain in the pipeline.

Japan has no indigenous uranium. About a third of its 2011 requirements for 8,195 tons of the fuel were to come from Australia and the remainder from Canada, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere.

As the World Nuclear Association notes, Japanese companies are increasingly taking equity in overseas uranium projects, such as in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Namibia. At the same time, Japan has been developing a complete domestic nuclear fuel cycle industry. It now operates a small uranium refining and conversion plant and a small centrifuge enrichment demonstration plant, at Ningyo Toge, Okayama prefecture. Most enrichment services are still being imported, though a commercial enrichment plant at Rokkasho, RE-2A, has been operational since 1992 using indigenous technology. A new enrichment plant in Japan using Russian centrifuge technology is planned under an agreement between Rosatom and Toshiba.

Japanese policy since 1956 has been to maximize the utilization of imported uranium, harvesting an additional 25% to 30% of energy from nuclear fuel by recycling the unburned uranium and plutonium as mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). The Federation of Electric Power Companies had previously announced that nine of its 10 member companies would use MOX fuel in 16 to 18 reactors from 2015 under the “pluthermal” program. In April 2012, the government announced a full review of nuclear fuel cycle options, considering economic and other criteria.

A law passed by Japan’s parliament in 2000 mandates deep geological disposal of vitrified waste from reprocessing spent reactor fuel. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization expects the repository to be operational by about 2035 at a cost of $28 billion, met by funds accumulated at 0.2 yen/kWh from electricity utilities.

Following the Fukushima crisis, the country’s nuclear plans remain in limbo, though it is evident that public support has been eroded.

Even before the crisis, industry experts suggested a “waning enthusiasm” for nuclear power, generated by a series of mishaps, including a 1981 incident in which nearly 300 workers were exposed to radiation after a fuel rod ruptured at the Tsuruga nuclear power plant, a 1996 sodium leak at the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor, a fire at The Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) waste bituminization facility connected with its reprocessing plant at Tokai, and the 1999 criticality accident at a small fuel fabrication plant at Tokai.

Analysts opine that public opposition to new nuclear power plants had caused and will continue to result in long delays in the licensing process, making utilities reluctant to invest heavily in them, given the high costs of construction.

Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.