METI presents multiple proposals to keep nuclear plants in operation over 60 years

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry presented several proposals to a panel of experts on Tuesday concerning the extension of the operational life of nuclear power plants currently set at 60 years.

Among the proposals is to not include time that a nuclear power plant is shut down, such as for inspection, or to eliminate the maximum operating period itself. The ministry plans to set the direction of nuclear energy policy, including adopting new rules, by the end of this year.

Under the Law on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors, the operating period of a nuclear power plant is set at 40 years in principle, with a maximum of 60 years. When the 40th year of operation is reached, the Nuclear Regulation Authority can grant a one-time extension of up to 20 years following a detailed safety check of critical facilities such as the reactor vessel.

However, in response to a crunch in the electrical supply and the trend toward decarbonization, the government is leaning toward a policy of maximizing the use of nuclear power, which entails considering extending the operating period of existing nuclear power plants.

The government is looking into transferring provisions regarding the operation period from the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law to the Electricity Business Law, which comes under the jurisdiction of the industry ministry. This would allow the industry minister to approve extensions for nuclear power plants once safety has been confirmed by the authority.

At the meeting of experts on Tuesday, the industry ministry presented three proposals: to maintain the current regulations; to not set an upper limit for the operating period; and to not count within the operating period any time, within a certain limit, that the nuclear power plant is shut down.

In addition to a safety inspection, nuclear plants can be closed through a court order or other reasons. Under the third proposal, in one scenario a plant suspended for 10 years for a safety review could be kept in operation for a maximum of 70 years since its startup.

Nuclear power plants that have not restarted since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 due to prolonged safety inspections could be allowed to operate for more than an additional 10 years.

At the meeting, several members of the panel supported the proposal to remove the cap. “To achieve a carbon neutral society while restraining the burden on the public, it is essential to make use of existing nuclear power plants,” said one member. Others called for careful deliberations, saying “It is hasty procedures that undermine public trust in nuclear administration.”

Concrete discussions for extending the operational period began when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida instructed the relevant ministries and agencies to start looking into the issue in August. In October, the industry ministry announced at a meeting of the Nuclear Regulation Authority its intention to proceed with making the necessary amendments to the law.

This month, the Nuclear Regulation Authority also began to consider a new system in anticipation of extending the period of operation. The authority is discussing a proposal for repeated confirmation and approval of plant safety every 10 years or less starting from the 30th year of operation.