What will happen with Japan’s nuclear power stations?

Japan nuclear power stations were all switched off in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We analyze the future of Japan nuclear power stations

Watch The Economist interview on Japan’s energy policy.

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Many times, often several times a day, I get asked about what will happen with Japan’s nuclear power stations – today alone twice. So here is the answer I usually give – please note that I am Physicist, and I know a lot about the Physics of nuclear power, and although I have personally avoided working in the nuclear physics field (which is much wider than nuclear power), I do not have a personal opinion for or against nuclear power:

Quick answer: it is impossible for anyone, including the Prime Minister of Japan, to know with any certainty.

Long answer: Japan is a democracy. Japan currently is quite polarized for or against nuclear power. Everyone knows that some Japanese leaders including the Prime Minister Abe, are in favor of nuclear power. On the other hand, many outstanding opinion leaders are strongly against nuclear power in Japan, these include Nobel Prize Winner Kenzaburo Oe, and also the former Prime Minister Koizumi. Currently we can observe the evolution of a democratic process in Japan to reach a consensus on the future of nuclear power stations in Japan. This process is different for every single nuclear power station, and it is impossible for anyone to make predictions.

Obviously the owners of the nuclear power stations hope to restart their power stations as quickly as possible, and they are supported by many industrial leaders and the current Prime Minister. They need to obtain the agreement by the newly established nuclear power regulator, which was newly established because the Parliamentary Committee which investigated the Fukushima nuclear disaster established that the cause for the nuclear disaster was “regulatory capture”. This committee was chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, and you can read one of his speeches “Groupthink can kill”, and watch YouTube movies explaining the results of his committee here.

Sofar none of the nuclear power station was cleared by the new nuclear safety agency, and no one knows when the safety inspection program will be concluded for any of the nuclear power stations, nor which stations will be cleared to restart (in principle) and to which the nuclear safety agency will refuse the clearance.

However, clearance by the nuclear safety agency is by far not enough. In addition, in Japan, nuclear power stations need the agreement of the local communities, i.e. the local mayors and Province (Ken, Prefecture) Government Prefects. As an example, the world’s largest nuclear power plant is Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, it is currently owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company to supply Tokyo with electricity, and it is located approximately 80 km from the Prefecture capital city Niigata-shi, which has about 1 million inhabitants. The current very outspoken Governor (Government Leader) of Niigata-Prefecture, Hirohiko Izumida (泉田 裕彦), has clearly stated his opposition both to the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station, and secondly he has also stated that he considers Tokyo Electric Power Company unsuited to manage a nuclear power station. Read and watch a video of Governor Hirohito Izumida here. I have read speculations that as a consequence it might be thinkable that ownership and/or management of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power station could be transferred to a different power company to overcome this local resistance. But it is not possible for anyone to predict how this will play out.

It is my understanding also, that in Japan it is not clearly defined which local authorities have to agree before a nuclear plant can operate, and which distance from the nuclear power station is still close enough that agreement of local authorities is needed. In my understanding also it seems to be unclear which type of local authorities have veto power: The Prefect (i.e. the chief of the Prefectural Government), cities, towns, villages etc. There seems to be much uncertainty here, which did not exist in the past, or which did not come out into the open in the past.

Another factor is the local geological situation for each nuclear power station. In Japan there are legal requirements that nuclear power stations need to be located away from active geological faults. Recently there have been investigations by geological experts about the geological conditions near the nuclear power stations, but my understanding is that many questions are still unsettled at least for some of the nuclear power stations.

Still another factor are the courts. Traditionally Japanese courts have rejected all complaints against the operation of nuclear power stations, but I hear that recently some court complaints against the operation, or against the restart of nuclear power stations have been successful. Court decisions also cannot be predicted by anyone.

So in summary: No-one can possibly predict what will happen with Japan’s nuclear power stations. When pushed, I sometimes say that a possible scenario will be that about 10 out of Japan’s approx. 50 nuclear power stations might be restarted in about 3 years from now. However, no one can know this for sure, and no one can assign a probability to any outcome.

There have been enquires by some non-Japanese/foreign media, which interviewed a number of experts, asked them to estimate the probability for each of Japan’s nuclear power plant, and then took some kind of average of these experts opinions. I was also asked to participate in this experts’ enquiry, but I refused to participate, and said that simply no one can know with any precision at all.

Watch The Economist interview on Japan’s energy policy.
Read our report on Japan’s energy sector,
and our report on Renewable energy in Japan.

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