As the Abe administration crows about Japan’s first nuclear plant export after the 2011 disaster, it continues to face the daunting tasks of containing radioactive water at the stricken Fukushima plant and cleaning up contaminated communities.
“I’m delighted that commercial negotiations on a nuclear plant contract have been completed and an agreement has been reached,” a beaming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference in Istanbul on Oct. 29.
The Turkish government the same day signed an agreement with a consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to build four nuclear reactors in the Black Sea city of Sinop at an estimated cost of more than $22 billion (2 trillion yen).
Since he took office in December, Abe has been pushing exports of nuclear power plants, among other infrastructure facilities, as a pillar of his economic growth strategy.
His latest trip to Turkey came only five months after his last visit to discuss nuclear cooperation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart.
“The deal was sealed in one go,” said an aide to Abe, attributing the success to the prime minister’s initiative.
No one was perhaps more surprised than Abe about the outcome of the trip. Before leaving for Turkey on Oct. 28, Abe told aides he did not expect that a formal agreement would be reached during his visit.
The Abe administration has signed a nuclear energy agreement, a precondition for exporting nuclear technology, with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Under Abe, the government has also agreed to start discussing a nuclear energy pact with Saudi Arabia and resumed talks with India, which were suspended after meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.
The government hopes that the contract with Turkey will improve Japan’s chances in winning competition for nuclear power projects in Vietnam, India and Russia, among other countries.
Based on International Atomic Energy Agency forecasts, the industry ministry estimates that a maximum of 370 new nuclear reactors will be built around the world by 2030.
With construction costing 400 billion to 500 billion yen per reactor, Japanese companies, including MHI, Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., are competing with foreign rivals for a slice of the market worth more than 100 trillion yen.
“Led by the prime minister, government officials have been working on many fronts,” Makoto Kubo, a Toshiba vice president, said at a news conference on Oct. 30. “We want to go ahead with (nuclear plant exports) in tandem with the government.”
According to government estimates released Oct. 29, Japan received 5.04 trillion yen worth of orders for exporting infrastructure facilities during the first nine months of the year, 50 percent more than the full-year amount for 2012.
“Aggressive efforts have paid off,” an official at the Cabinet Secretariat said. “The prime minister has led sales promotions in 21 countries.”
While pushing nuclear plant exports, Abe has said that Japan will lower the ratio of atomic energy in electricity generation. But he has not explained how he plans to reduce nuclear plants and by when.
At the Fukushima No. 1 plant, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. has spent months struggling to keep ever-increasing radioactive water from leaking from storage tanks and other facilities.
In a speech at an International Olympic Committee meeting in September before the IOC members picked Tokyo to host the 2020 Games, Abe said, “The situation is under control,” referring to the radioactive water problem.
But leaks have continued, with some water believed to be finding its way into the Pacific Ocean. Groundwater has been contaminated after mixing with water used to cool the reactors in which melted fuel is still releasing heat.
High levels of radioactive materials have also been detected in drainage ditches and observation wells on the premises.
Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, summoned TEPCO President Naomi Hirose on Oct. 28 and pressed the company to take a more effective approach to deal with the radioactive water problem.
On a longer term, decommissioning the reactors and removing radioactive materials covering surrounding areas are two primary challenges facing TEPCO.
On Oct. 30, the utility received NRA approval to begin removing nuclear fuel from a storage pool for the No. 4 reactor, one of the first steps toward decommissioning.
The No. 4 reactor is the first from which nuclear fuel will be removed among the four crippled reactors. TEPCO believes that it will take until the end of 2014 to remove about 1,500 fuel assemblies from the No. 4 reactor building.
Senior officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Oct. 30 approved an LDP task force’s proposal calling on the government to play a greater role in cleaning up contaminated areas and other post-disaster operations.
Some estimate that 10 trillion yen will be required for decontamination, decommissioning and compensation to disaster victims, with clean-up operations accounting for half of the costs.
LDP panel members said TEPCO will not be able to shoulder the costs alone, and the nuclear crisis cannot be brought under control as long as the government leaves the task solely in the company’s hands.
Still, some members of the LDP and junior coalition partner New Komeito are opposed to forking out taxpayer money for post-disaster operations in what would amount to a government bailout of TEPCO.
Some of the disaster victims were clearly not happy with Abe's push for nuclear plant exports while problems continue to mount in Japan.
Soichi Saito, a 63-year-old who evacuated from Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, after the nuclear disaster, criticized Abe’s double talk on nuclear energy policy.
“How dare he sell nuclear power plants abroad when he has not been able to bring an accident under control?” asked Saito, chief of an association of temporary housing residents in Iwaki in the same prefecture. “What does he think of victims of the nuclear disaster?”
(This article was compiled from reports by Kotaro Ono in Istanbul, Osamu Uchiyama and Norihisa Hoshino in Tokyo and Takuro Negishi in Iwaki.)
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