What is Japan's atomic ambition?

7 March 2006

Japan lacks significant domestic energy resources and must import some 80% of its requirements. It is therefore very vulnerable to disruption in international fossil fuel markets, as became very clear during the oil shocks of the 1970s and as reinforced by more recent price escalations, and has seen nuclear as a steadying counterbalance.

Uranium has to be imported but can be easily stockpiled and accounts for only a relatively minor part of power production costs at nuclear plants. Japanese utilities tend to hold four to five times their annual uranium requirements in inventory and the 55 reactors now in operation have clearly greatly enhanced Japan’s energy security.

More recently, however, the nuclear programme has slowed somewhat, with new reactors either being delayed or cancelled. There are several reasons for this. One is that forecasts of electricity demand growth in Japan have been regularly reduced as the national economy has slowed. This has caused the ten major electricity utilities to change their plans to introduce new generating capacity of all sorts, not just nuclear. Secondly, public support for nuclear power in Japan has been eroded in the last few years due to a series of accidents and scandals: The sodium leak at the Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR); a fire at a waste bituminisation facility connected with a reprocessing facility; the criticality accident at a small fuel fabrication plant, which claimed two lives; and the steam pipe rupture at Mihama which claimed five lives.

The scandals included the falsification of quality control data on a shipment from the of MOX fuel from the UK and the poor documentation of equipment inspections at Tepco's reactors, which extended to other plants. While the scandals were not safety-related, the industry's reputation was sullied. The industry has worked very hard on public acceptance for many years but the reputation for good safety and openness in dealing with the public has taken a knock. This has made it more difficult to get approval for new reactor sites and for local people to accept developments such as the introduction of MOX fuel in existing reactors.

Finally, the question of what to do with nuclear waste has remained the subject of lively debate. Japan has embraced the policy of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, initially at facilities in Europe but eventually at its own reprocessing plant, now nearing completion at Rokkasho. The costs of this and also the wisdom of recycling the separated uranium and plutonium in current reactors have been questioned, which has created an additional climate of uncertainty surrounding the industry.

Japan imported its first commercial nuclear power reactor, Tokai Japco, from UK. This was a 166MWe gas-cooled Magnox reactor, which operated from 1966 to 1998. After this unit was completed, only light water reactors (LWRs) utilising enriched uranium – either boiling water reactors (BWRs) or pressurised water reactors (PWRs) – have been constructed. In 1970, the first three such reactors were completed and began commercial operation. There followed a period in which Japanese utilities purchased designs from US vendors and built them with the co-operation of Japanese companies, who would then receive a licence to build similar plants in Japan. Companies such as Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed the capacity to design and construct LWRs by themselves. By the end of the 1970s Japanese industry had largely established its own domestic nuclear power production capacity and today it exports to other east Asian countries and is involved in the development of new reactor designs likely to be used in Europe. Today, Toshiba is about to take control of Westinghouse, which is expected to supply a few reactors to China in the near term, not to mention something like ten in the USA over the next ten years. (See NEI February p2 and March p2 and p4).

After relatively poor operating performances of the initial reactors, which required long maintenance outages, the LWR Improvement & Standardisation Programme was launched by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the nuclear power industry. This aimed, by 1985, to standardise LWR designs in three phases. In phases 1 and 2, the existing BWR and PWR designs, were to be modified to improve their operation and maintenance. The third phase of the programme involved increasing the reactor size to 1300-1400MWe and making fundamental changes to the designs. These were to be the Advanced BWRs (ABWRs) and the Advanced PWRs.


It now appears that the Japanese economy is back on track and that electricity demand growth will be difficult to restrain

Japan has progressively developed a complete domestic nuclear fuel cycle industry, based on imported uranium. There is a small uranium refining and conversion plant and, while most enrichment services are still imported, Japan Nuclear Fuel (JNFL) operates a commercial enrichment plant planned to eventually achieve 1.5 million SWU/yr. There are several fuel fabrication facilities, and permission has recently been granted for a MOX fuel fabrication facility. This decision is seen as a significant step to closing the fuel cycle in Japan, as the programme has previously relied on European reprocessing and fabrication facilities. Operation is expected in 2012.

At Rokkasho, there is major complex including the enrichment facility, low-level and high-level waste (LLW and HLW) storage centres and an 800t/y reprocessing plant (with commissioning expected in 2006). The planned MOX plant will also be located here. Originally the concept was to use the separated plutonium from reprocessing in FBRs, making Japan virtually independent regarding nuclear fuel, but they proved uneconomic in an era of abundant low-cost uranium. Development therefore slowed and the MOX program shifted to thermal LWR reactors.

There are strong reasons to believe that nuclear will remain in its central position in Japanese energy policy for many years to come. Indeed, it is conceivable that it may become even more important. In July 2005 the Atomic Energy Commission reaffirmed policy directions for nuclear power in Japan, while confirming that the immediate focus would be on LWRs. The main elements are that a “30-40% share or more” shall be the target for nuclear power in total generation after 2030, including replacement of current plants with advanced light water reactors. FBRs will be introduced commercially, but not until about 2050. Used fuel will be reprocessed domestically to recover fissile material for use in MOX fuel. Disposal of high-level wastes will be addressed after 2010.

In addition, Japan is heavily committed to achieving its Kyoto targets on greenhouse gas emissions and a strong role for nuclear is seen as central to this. It is already falling behind in its achievement of its targets for the protocol’s initial 2008-2012 commitment period and appears to have few policies which will pull it back on track. Renewable sources now account for 12% of Japan’s electricity generating capacity but the subsidies required to increase this are likely to have an adverse impact on electricity prices, always a hot issue in Japan. The record on energy-saving and general conservation of resources is quite good, but it remains very much hooked on substantial imports of fossil fuels, in line with other highly developed economies. These mean that carbon emissions are continuing to rise. Finally, after a decade of little economic growth, it now appears that the Japanese economy is back on track and that electricity demand growth will be difficult to restrain. There has therefore been some talk of potential power shortages in the future unless substantial investments are made in the near future in new generating capacity – and this includes nuclear.

Recent experience of building nuclear power plants has been very positive as construction periods have been reduced to four years and ABWRs have operated very economically. The recent increases in fossil fuel prices have also provided a significant spur to building new nuclear plants on economic grounds. The prime alternative to nuclear for baseload generating capacity is combined cycle gas turbine plants but economic viability crucially depends on the provision of a cheap gas supply, either by pipeline or (increasingly) through liquefied natural gas. Gas prices are much more localised than oil prices but the trend has been strongly upwards in recent times. Dependence on gas supply from potentially unstable countries is also a significant issue in Japan, just as in Europe.

Longer term, Japan is heavily involved in international research programmes to design the next generation of nuclear reactors, the so-called Generation IV. These are meant to one day offer substantial advantages in safety, operating economics, proliferation-resistance and volumes of waste compared with the latest designs available today. And, although it could not secure the Iter facility itself, Japan's negotiations earned it the crucial International Fusion Materials Test Facility (also for Rokkasho) and the chance to host the first fusion power station.

Given its continued concern about both energy security and greenhouse gas emissions, combined with a requirement to find fully economic solutions to energy requirements, Japan is likely to remain a major player in the world nuclear industry. In addition to building more nuclear plants, it is now a technology leader and fully capable of achieving export orders for equipment in other countries which are embracing nuclear, in particular China.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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