Effectively use existing nuclear power plants for stable electricity supply

It is unreasonable to uniformly draw a line in terms of the safety of nuclear power plants based on the number of years since their operations began. To ensure a stable supply of electricity, it is important to utilize existing facilities as effectively as possible.

Fukui Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto has agreed to restart the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at the Takahama nuclear power plant and the No. 3 reactor at the Mihama nuclear power plant, which Kansai Electric Power Co. began operating more than 40 years ago in Fukui Prefecture. It can be said to be a reasonable judgment based on the fact that the prefectural assembly supported the restart of the reactors, following support by the local governments of Takahama and Mihama towns.

There were originally no restrictions on the operating period of nuclear power plants in Japan. After the 2011 accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the revised Law on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors stipulates that the period should be 40 years in principle. The revised law included a measure to extend the period by 20 years upon approval by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

The three reactors at the Takahama and Mihama plants first saw operation 44 to 46 years ago, but the NRA approved their extension in 2016. With the agreement of the governor, the necessary conditions for restarting the reactors have been met for the first time.

Some people are concerned about the restart of old nuclear power plants. However, the functions of nuclear power plants are maintained through parts replacement and planned repairs, and safety measures based on new regulatory standards have also been introduced. KEPCO needs to make these efforts widely known to the public and work to dispel concerns.

KEPCO intends to restart the operation of reactors in the order of those that have completed preparation work. However, all three reactors are subject to a requirement to strengthen safeguards against terrorism. If KEPCO cannot implement the safeguards within the deadline, it will have to stop operating them again.

In the United States, too, the approved period for nuclear power plant operation is 40 years, but this is not considered the upper limit. Most of the more than 90 nuclear reactors in the United States have been approved for extensions of operation, with 60 years of operation becoming the mainstream. Among them, there are four reactors that are allowed to operate for 80 years.

In Japan, only nine nuclear reactors have been restarted since the 2011 disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Many of them have been suspended for the past 10 years, and their facilities have not deteriorated. Isn’t it appropriate to deduct the period of non-operation from the 40-year limit?

Many nuclear power plants in Japan were built before the 1990s and will reach the 40-year limit one after another. Primarily, it is desirable, in terms of safety, to consider the construction of new and additional reactors, as well as extending the operation periods to get by for the time being.

It is also necessary to promote scientific research on the durable lifespan of nuclear power facilities. Continuing to operate nuclear power plants also helps maintain skills and human resources in this area.

The government has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46% in fiscal 2030 from its fiscal 2013 levels. It will be difficult to achieve the goal unless the restart of nuclear reactors, which do not emit carbon dioxide, is facilitated. The government should change its ambiguous stance on nuclear power generation and clarify its policy of actively utilizing nuclear power plants.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 29, 2021.