40% of nuclear plant staff lack experiences of reactivation

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hisashi Makino, left, a former employee of Chugoku Electric Power Co., instructs Sho Ogawa, an operator at the company, during a drill in July to start up the operation of a nuclear reactor inside a simulator at the Shimane nuclear power plant in Matsue.

Nearly 40% of the operations staff at the seven electric power companies that have not yet restarted their nuclear power plants since 2011 have no experience with reactors, a Yomiuri Shimbun survey found.

That group includes Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that had an accident during the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Because progress to restart their reactors has been slow, these power companies have sought to maintain their personnel’s skills by dispatching staff to nuclear power plants and thermal power plants operated by other companies.

Currently, only Kansai Electric Power Co., Kyushu Electric Power Co. and Shikoku Electric Power Co. have been able to restart some reactors.

At Chugoku Electric Power Co.’s Shimane nuclear power plant in Matsue, there is a simulator exactly modeled after the central control room of its No. 2 reactor.

“Now, we will begin a drill to start up a nuclear reactor,” Hisashi Makino, 65, a former employee of Chugoku Electric Power said in July to Sho Ogawa, 27, an operator at the plant.

Ogawa manipulated a switch as if steam were being generated in the reactor to power a turbine that will generate electricity. Makino and Ogawa checked the operations, pointing to various gauges.

Reactor No. 2, which is currently shut down, has passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety examinations, which took about seven years and eight months to complete.

However, the Shimane nuclear power plant has been shut down for more than 10 years, and 41 out of its 107 operators, or 38%, have no experience operating a nuclear power plant. In light of this, Chugoku Electric Power has begun training them this fiscal year, asking Makino, a former operator with more than 30 years of experience, to serve as an instructor.

Ogawa, who joined the company in 2013 and thus has no operating experience, was enthusiastic about the training.

“I want to acquire those senses that I cannot gain just by reading manuals,” he said. “I want to take part in the restart of the plant with confidence.”

Lying behind the lack of experience of the operators is the fact that the restart of the plant has not been progressing due to the prolonged examination by the NRA, which will mark its 10th year since being established on Sept. 19, 2012.

10 years to train

In addition to operating the central control room, operators also have to make the rounds at the reactor site.

“Operators must have actual experience to perceive any abnormalities instantly,” Makino said.

He added that while a reactor is in operation, it is also important for operators to sharpen their senses, rather than relying solely on instruments, and detect abnormalities from the temperature in the piping system and operating sounds.

In August, The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed electric power companies and found that the seven firms that have their nuclear power plants under safety review by the NRA — Hokkaido, Tohoku, Japan Atomic Power Co., TEPCO, Chubu, Hokuriku, and Chugoku electric power companies — had a combined total of 1,130 operators. Of them, approximately 420 people, or 37% of them, answered that they had never operated a nuclear power plant.

Hokkaido Electric had the largest percentage of such operators, with its nuclear reactors under examination for more than nine years. About 80 of its 170 operators have no experience with active nuclear power plants.

It is said to take 10 years for an operator to become a full-fledged nuclear plant operator. Maintaining and passing on operating skills is a major issue for all these companies.

According to the survey, the seven companies use simulators or dispatch operators to other companies that are now operating nuclear power plants for training.

Because the types of nuclear reactors in operation might be different from those of their own, some companies have positioned the training as not to improve skills, but to experience operating actual equipment. Excepting Japan Atomic Power Co., the firms also dispatch operators to thermal power plants, which structurally have many similarities with nuclear power plants. The key difference, however, is that they don’t handle nuclear fuel.

“Once the operation of reactors restarts, everyone in charge on the scene needs to be able to foresee abnormalities and be aware of potential dangers,” said Tadashi Narabayashi, a specially appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who specializes in nuclear reactor engineering.

Drawing fewer graduates

The nuclear industry continues to face a shortage of human resources who will be responsible for nuclear power plants in the future.

According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., the number of university students who participated in nuclear power-related employment seminars in the 2021 academic year totaled 380, one-fifth the 1,903 in 2010.

“It is difficult to recruit engineering majors due to the alienation from science and engineering and the low birth rate,” said an official in charge. “Especially after the nuclear accident, nuclear power plants have had a doubly bad image.”

The number of recruits in the nuclear power sector at six nuclear power-related manufacturers in fiscal 2021 was about one-third the peak number of over 250 recruits registered in fiscal 2009.

The number of students enrolling in university departments and graduate schools with some connection to nuclear power has also been declining, down 20% to 250 in the 2019 academic year from 317 in the 2010 academic year, according to organizations including the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

“Maintenance work is indispensable for the safe maintenance and management of nuclear power plants, and a shortage of human resources could affect their safety,” said Prof. Tatsujiro Suzuki of Nagasaki University, who specializes in nuclear energy policy. “The government, electric power companies and nuclear power-related firms should grant scholarships to attend educational institutions and provide students with opportunities to work on internships.”