Japan’s Restart of Sendai Nuclear Plant a Mistake

The Japanese government has restarted the Sendai nuclear power plant, the first to fire up since new regulations came into effect on the heels of the almost-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Last week’s decision means the plant will be operating at full capacity sometime in September. Until Sendai started up, all 43 of Japan’s nuclear facilities were off-line. Twenty-three, including Sendai, have applied to start up again. The government wasted a crisis that could have put Japan on a new and better path. Restarting Sendai was a mistake.

The Abe government is faced with the same problem Japanese governments have had for decades, running a highly industrialized economy without much in the way of energy resources. The American-led embargo on oil in 1940-1 led directly to the attack on Pearl Harbor because the Tojo regime knew it was running out of fuel and had to throw the dice. Today, Japan lives by imported energy. With oil prices collapsing, Japan is all right for now, but there is no guarantee that prices will stay low.

As a result, “Our policy is to push forward restarts of reactors that cleared the world’s toughest safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Monday. “I would like Kyushu Electric to put safety first and take utmost precautions for the restart.” This is part of a drive to bring nuclear-generated energy back, targeting 20% of all Japanese energy usage by 2030. That is roughly the same level of nuclear power seen in the USA’s mix, from 104 facilities.

One has sympathy for the Abe and previous governments. A certain degree of control over one’s energy supply is reassuring. The 43 off-line nuclear facilities represent a huge amount of money not working for the benefit of the Japanese people. The Fukushima disaster was a unique combination of an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by a flooded facility. Surely, it cannot happen again.

Yet the Sendai plant is located in an active volcano zone. The regulations now in place almost certainly cover every foreseeable problem. What is troubling are the unforeseeable problems. Naoto Kan, who was prime minister at the time of the Fukushima accident, has been working to stop the government. He said at a rally, “We don’t need nuclear plants.” The Fukushima disaster “exposed the myth of safe and cheap nuclear power, which turned out to be dangerous and expensive. Why are we trying to resume nuclear power?”

One reason is Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program, which relies on mixed oxide fuel (MOX) that renders plutonium and uranium-235 safer, but not entirely safe. Japan has enough weapons-grade plutonium to make 40 or 50 bombs, and reducing that would make the rest of the region feel a bit better about Japan’s more muscular use of its self-defense forces. With the reactors off-line, no plutonium or uranium is being used up. Roughly 100 tons of plutonium is generated every year, so bringing the figure of MOX fuel reactors up is a consideration.

Nevertheless, the closing of the nuclear reactors in Japan should have been a Sputnik moment in energy generation in Japan. Tidal, wind and solar suffer from lack of storage, and it is difficult to believe that Japanese industry is not up to the task of improving storage for these sources. While living on volcanically active islands creates some problems (earthquakes for example), it also offers free geo-thermal energy. A renewable boom did begin.

But then as the BBC reported,”At the end of last year Japan’s big power companies began telling solar producers they could take no more electricity from them. At the same time the government dropped the price utilities would have to pay for electricity from new solar to 27 Yen per kWh.” One hates to suggest a conspiracy, but this was a case of fortuitous timing for the nuclear industry

When the next nuclear accident hits Japan (and the law of big numbers says there will be one someday), millions will be able to say “I told you so.” At least, they will be if they aren’t to busy trying to evacuate the disaster zone.