It was less than two weeks ago that Goshi Hosono, the nuclear power policy minister, announced the government’s decision to set a legal life span of 40 years for nuclear power plants. Since then, the Cabinet Secretariat unveiled a draft revision to the law to allow nuclear plants to operate for up to 60 years in exceptional cases.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has given preliminary endorsement to the results of stress tests for the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The agency’s draft evaluation of the special safety tests, conducted by the plant operator, Kansai Electric Power Co., recognizes the test results as “appropriate.”
The agency’s move represents the first step toward restarting nuclear reactors that have been shut down for regular maintenance.
Many people in Japan are probably feeling confused.
Until now it had been assumed that the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was committed to a policy of reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear power generation.
The legal life span of 40 years was supposed to be an embodiment of Noda’s pledge, made at the time of his government’s inauguration, to decommission reactors as they reach the end of their service life.
The Cabinet Secretariat says reactors allowed to remain in service for more than 40 years will be “extremely exceptional” cases. It has promised to set much tougher standards for extended service life.
The NISA says the stress test is only “part of the procedures” for putting suspended reactors back online. Decisions on whether to restart individual reactors will be left to politicians.
There is no question that these moves are creating the impression that the government is backpedaling on its policy of tightening nuclear safety regulations by using the lessons gleaned from the Fukushima disaster while pushing the nation toward an energy future less dependent on atomic power.
It doesn't make sense to try to establish and implement detailed nuclear power regulations and procedures before figuring out the extent to which nuclear power generation will be reduced and over what time frame.
As for its overall energy policy, the government has decided to scrap its basic energy program, which calls for raising the share of nuclear power generation in the nation’s overall power supply to 53 percent in 2030. The advisory council on natural resources and energy, administered by the METI, is working to craft a new program by this spring.
But there are deep differences among members of the council on key issues. Some members are arguing that the panel should limit its task to making clear both points of agreement and disagreement and leave the final decisions to politicians.
Instead of simply waiting for policy recommendations and proposals from expert advisors, the Noda administration should exercise strong and effective leadership in developing a new nuclear power policy.
The government needs to send a clear message about its policy stance from time to time to avoid the appearance of dithering and wavering.
Old reactors generally have limited power generation capacity. Scrapping them won’t have a significant impact on overall power supply.
The government should declare that reactors in service for more than 40 years will all be shut down.
It then needs to make and publish a reliable estimate of how many reactors must be operated to meet peak power demand during this summer. In forming the estimate, the government should take account of the cuts in electricity consumption achieved through the power-saving drive last summer.
Unless it takes concrete steps swiftly to improve the environment for early decommissioning of reactors that can be shut down without causing a serious power shortage, the government cannot hope to win public support for its new nuclear power policy.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 19
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