Friday, July 13, 2012

Balance of power v. politics in Japan's quest to restart its nuclear reactors

The uncertain future of four reactors at Fukushina Dai-ni
TEPCO weighs public opinion against need for power

Antique illustration of Japanese samurai
 in full armour. Original artwork
 published in the book
Young Americans in Japan
by E. Grey, published in USA
by Lee and Shepard in 1881.
The balance of power in Japan is not like a struggle between competing war lord in the 1500s, but one between the nation’s need for electricity and deep distrust and anti-nuclear sentiment in the general population. This struggle is visible in the pending decision by Tokyo Electric Power Corp. (TEPCO) whether to repair and restart four nuclear reactors at Fukushima Dai-ni.

Unlike the six reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, where were severely damaged, and face a long path to decommissioning, the four reactors at Fukushima Dia-ni were hit by a smaller wave. 

From a technical perspective, the damage to switchyards and other infrastructure can be repaired which would allow the reactors to restart. Unlike Dai-icho, Dia-ni’s reactors survived the earthquake and tsunami intact without meltdowns or hydrogen explosions.

The challenge is opposition by Fukushima province political leaders who feel the last thing their constituents want are operating reactors in their backyards so to speak.

TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said July 5 the firm hasn’t made up its mind whether to repair or close the four reactors at Dia-ni. The stakes are high since all four are 1,067 MW units whereas five of the six reactors at Dai-ichi are 760 MW units. Also, the Dia-ni units are newer having been built five to ten years later than the smaller units at Dai-ichi.

It would be difficult for TEPCO to walk away from 4 Gwe of nuclear power especially with the huge burden on the economy of costs associated with fossil fuel replacement power.

TEPCO is working on repairs to Dia-ni and expects to complete them in early 2013. However, TEPCO won’t say, at least for now, whether or when it will seek to restart the units.

TEPCO has a related challenge in the planned restart of the nation’s biggest nuclear power station, the seven reactor site at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa which is home to five 1,067 MW units and two that come in at 1,315 MW. The seven reactors are even newer than the Fukushima Dia-ni reactors which means their run time to a year 40 license renewal decision is more longer. 

40 years and out or not?

The debate in Japan’s Diet over the launch of a new, independent nuclear safety agency included questions of whether the legislature should impose an absolute 40 year lifetime on nuclear reactors. 

While the legislation that emerged did not, the question has become part of the larger debate are the role of nuclear energy in Japan.

The problem TEPCO faces at Fukushima-Dia-ni is that the 40 year mark comes up fast for the first two reactors (see table below). Even if the utility completes repairs by 2013 as scheduled, it may have to combine safety checks and assurances to the general population with a contentious 20-year license renewal process. 

Nuclear Reactor Relicensing Timelines
Fukushima Dia-ni
Unit  Open Age 40?
1 1982 2022
2 1984 2024
3 1985 2025
41987 2027
Unit  Open Age 40?
1 1985 2025
2 1990 2030
3 1993 2033
4 1994 2034
5 1995 2035
6 1996 2036
7 1997 2037

Add to that the uncertainty of getting the renewal through a brand new, independent nuclear safety agency bent on proving its rigor to a skeptical population.

Kazuhiko Shimokobe, the new chairman and government approved turn around champion at TEPCO, said in a press tour of the Dia-ni plant last week that provincial officials in Fukushima want the utility to scrap all four units.

Balancing bailout priorities

TECPO has received the equivalent of $12.53 billion in a government bailout and 10 year restructuring plan to cover cleanup and compensations costs from the March 11 disaster. The firm is now accountable to the government if it spends money to restore damaged reactors to revenue service. On the other hand, scrapping the reactors could result in new decommissioning costs in the range of two-to-three billion or up to 25% of the amount of the government’s bailout.

The last thing the government wants are new claims on the fixed amount of funding. Plus, if TEPCO can put the reactors back in revenue service, the electricity they generate will put people back to work. It will boost tax revenues as well as reduce the nation’s balance of payments. The trade deficit went into deficit territory for the first time in three decades as a result of fossil fuel imports to replace power from shut down nuclear reactors.

Yukio Edano was the
Chief Spokesman for PM Naoto Kan
during the early days of
 the Fukushima crisis in 2011
On one hand, the government wants TEPCO to have the ability to generate electricity to keep the lights on. On the other hand, even national ministers, like METI Chief Yukio Edano waffles on the issue of how many reactors will be restarted and when. 

Business groups, which have considerable influence with the government, have made it clear to Edano that if the nation does not have a reliable electricity supply, they will start moving their high value manufacturing operations offshore to nations who do. Job losses could be in the 100s of thousands.

Edano is in a curious position since he was the former chief spokesman for former Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan. As it turns out, Kan is now stridently anti-nuclear. His public credibility took a hit last month when a privately funded report on the Fukushima disaster documented instances of Kan’s erratic responses to the crisis.

Edano has been onboard with the restart of two Kansai Electric reactors at the Ohi site in south central Japan, but says he wants the rest to wait for the start of operations of the new nuclear safety agency.

Shareholders in the now bankrupt TEPCO, and in Kansai Electric, which is solvent, have rejected initiatives to permanently shut down their reactors. TEPCO chairman Shimookobe told shareholders it is inconceivable for the utility to give up reliance on nuclear power for the next decade or longer.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Japan's culture and Fukushima

Personal accountability trumps organizational loyalty

U.S. President Harry S. Truman's
famous motto: "The buck stops here."
In a fiery essay published in the Financial Times July 10, Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis makes the point that what people do matters. Organizations may come and go, but the actions of individuals are what make history.

Curtis, who has lots of experience in Japan, writes that the Fukushima crisis is not just about natural disasters, but also about the accountability of people.

Curtis nails it on one with this summary.

"Culture does not explain Fukushima. People have autonomy to choose; at issue are the choices they make, not the cultural context in which they make them. If obedience to authority is such an ingrained trait in Japan, how then is it possible for a group of Japanese to write a report that not only questions but lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience? The culture argument is specious."

And as far as individual choices are concerned, Curtis singles out former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan for interfering with TEPCO's response to the crisis. TEPCO managers are taken to task for unrealistic and disconnected responses to the crisis that put business objectives ahead of disaster response. A hero amid the bums is TEPCO plant manager Masso Yoshida who disregarded orders from TEPCO executives not to use salt water to cool the damaged reactors.

Maybe it is time for Japan to stop the cop out of blaming its conformist culture for a lack of initiative. Not that is it likely to happen, but bringing charges against TEPCO and government officials for their criminally inept handling of the disaster could make an example of them for future generations. It could also set a precedent for the actions of the leadership of the newly authorized nuclear safety agency which is expected to begin operations later this year.

Connecting the dots

There's also an example for Japan in the U.S. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned his position because of his actions that undercut the credibility of the safety agency. His divisive management style, and erratic behavior, relative to the other four commissioners, showed that like TEPCO's managers in Japan, he had lost touch with reality.

TEPCO's managers didn't want to use salt water to cool the reactors at Fukushima because they had the ludicrous objective of thinking the units could be saved. Jaczko spiked the NRC's plan to review the Yucca Mountain license application because of loyalty to his political sponsor, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who cares more about the livelihood of gambling casinos in Nevada than the nation's energy security.

Curtis doesn't connect these dots in his essay, but I see the parallels. The fundamental facts of science, engineering, and a realistic appraisal of physical conditions are the basis for effective nuclear safety. These requirements hold whether a nuclear plant is operating normally or during a natural or man made disaster.

What Curtis does make clear is that when managers who are accountable for the operation of nuclear power stations lose sight of the fundamentals, they remain personally responsible and cannot hide behind a corporate or government firewall.

New nuclear regulatory agency 

Japan will begin operations of a new nuclear regulatory safety agency in September. The new law will create a five-member independent commission, supported by technical staff, that will replace the compromised Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency which was housed inside the Japanese government's trade ministry.

The new agency will have several immediate tasks. The first will be to set up a new regulatory program with revised safety standards. Second, the agency will inherit the effort to restart shut down nuclear reactors certifying them as safe.  Third, the agency will have to grapple with whether some of Japan's older plants, now approaching 30 years of operational life, should have their licenses extended for another 20 years beyond the 40 year mark.

Public acceptance of restart of Japanese reactor fleet will depend on how quickly and how well the new agency gets down to business.

Japan Diet panel report a scathing review

5 Jul (NucNet): The crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year was the result of “a multitude of errors and willful negligence” by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), regulators and government, a Japanese parliamentary investigation said in a new report. (Executive summary only online)

In the preface, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, MD, former president of the Science Council of Japan and chairman of the parliament’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said although the March 2011 accident was triggered by “cataclysmic events”, the subsequent accident at Fukushima-Daiichi cannot be regarded as a natural disaster.

“It was a profoundly manmade disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” Mr Kurokawa said.

The report, which has been presented to parliament for review, said last year’s failure of Fukushima-Daiichi was a “Made in Japan” crisis caused by the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture”.

It said: “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program; our groupism; and our insularity.

“This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization.”
The commission’s report also points to problems in the response of TEPCO and then prime minister Naoto Kan, who resigned last year after criticism of his handling of the crisis.

“The... Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties”, the commission said in an English summary of a 641-page report.

Regulators, it said, had been reluctant to adopt global safety standards that could have helped prevent the disaster in which reactors melted down.

The commission concluded that the root causes of the accident were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported “faulty rationales for decisions and actions”, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable, but the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami that hit that day. The operator the regulatory bodies the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI), all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements, the commission said.

The report highlighted what it called “collusion” between NISA and TEPCO before the accident. It says NISA told TEPCO that it did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. NISA then asked the operators to write a report that would give “the appropriate rationale” for why this consideration was unnecessary.

The report has taken some six months to prepare. The commission was the first independent commission chartered by parliament in the history of Japan’s constitutional government and commission members said it is vital that the report be acted upon globally.

Mr Kurokawa’s commission is one of three large-scale investigations into the failure of Fukushima-Daiichi, which suffered multiple reactor meltdowns and hydrogen explosions after its safety systems were knocked out by the huge earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s north-east coast.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Areva plays the China card

It issues an expression of interest for the Horizon nuclear project

biddingFrench state-owned nuclear giant Areva announced last week that it is interested in building new nuclear reactors at Anglesey and Gloucestershire in partnership with the state-owned China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp (CGNPC).

Luc Orsel, Areva CEO said the two firms would join efforts to bid for the Horizon nuclear project which includes power station sites at Wylfa and Oldbury.

Two German utilities, RWE and Eon, announced last March they are selling off their interests due to poor cash positions caused by the German government’s decision to close half the nation’s reactors in response to the Fukushima crisis.

If the deal goes through it would likely involve a combination of the Areva EPR reactor, a 1650 MW PWR, and Chinese financing. Areva has been cash strapped for capital projects since last December when Oursel clamped down on the firm’s global commitments including a uranium enrichment plant in the U.S.

The Areva EPR is completing the Generic Design Assessment in the U.K. which is expected to result in a go head by the U.K. government to build the units.

Read the full details exclusively at CoolHandNuke online now.


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