EDITORIAL: Power industry’s persistence on nuclear future simply baffling

October 16, 2012

Chugoku Electric Power Co.’s plan to build a new nuclear power plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture has been put on ice. Earlier this month, Yamaguchi Governor Shigetaro Yamamoto refused to grant an extension of the utility’s license to reclaim land for building the Kaminoseki plant.

In a related move, industry minister Yukio Edano announced he will not give the green light to any of nine reactor projects now on the drawing board, including the Kaminoseki undertaking.

These were absolutely sound decisions. The government should swiftly get to work on specifics to phase out nuclear power generation in Japan, promote new power sources and liberalize the power market.

But Chugoku Electric Power has refused to abandon the Kaminoseki project, claiming that nuclear power generation is necessary for ensuring a stable power supply. The power industry as a whole also remains committed to expanding production of electricity with atomic energy.

The power industry’s persistence in pushing for continued expansion of nuclear power generation, as if the Fukushima nuclear disaster had not happened, is simply baffling.

Public opinion is strongly in favor of reducing Japan’s dependence on atomic energy. This is grounded in growing distrust of the utilities operating nuclear power plants and the government’s nuclear power policy, both of which ignored risks and neglected to take necessary steps to enhance the safety of the plants. There is also a general wariness about the use of atomic energy itself.

What lessons has the power industry learned from the reactor meltdowns last year, and how does it intend to change itself? One year and seven months have passed since the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. However, the cosseted industry, which has long been sheltered from competition under regional monopolies, has yet to offer a clear statement about the disaster or its response to it.

Rather, the industry has shown troubling signs that it is resisting change. It has, for instance, shown great reluctance to disclose related information and mounted a joint political lobbying campaign by labor and management to press for the maintenance of nuclear power generation.

The power industry appears to be betting that the Liberal Democratic Party, if it returns to power in the next Lower House election, would scrap the government’s decision to push the nation toward a new energy future that is not dependent on atomic energy.

Certainly, the LDP disagrees with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on the issue of phasing out nuclear power generation. But the main opposition party, if it takes power back from the DPJ, would find it impossible to revive its old policy of promoting nuclear power.

The Kaminoseki nuclear power plant project, first mooted three decades ago, has remained stalled in the face of persistent opposition from local residents.

It will no doubt become increasingly difficult to find a site to build a new nuclear power plant. The government’s support for nuclear power generation will dwindle, while the scope of “local communities” that need to be persuaded to accept a new nuclear plant will expand. Meanwhile, nuclear safety regulations will become tighter, and the cost of taking measures to meet stricter safety standards and introducing necessary new technologies will grow.

More than anything else, the power industry has yet to set aside enough cash reserves for decommissioning aged reactors. Nuclear power plants are certain to impose an increasingly heavy burden on the electric utilities operating them. Utilities also need to prepare themselves for increased competition from other players in the market due to expected deregulation of the industry.

Fortunately for Chugoku Electric Power, its dependence on nuclear energy for power output is smaller than some other power suppliers, such as Kansai Electric Power Co. The utility mainly serves the five prefectures in the Chugoku region and is in relatively fine financial shape.

It would be much smarter for the company to focus its efforts on improving the safety of existing reactors, securing alternative power sources and bolstering its marketing power instead of seeking to get the deadlocked Kaminoseki nuclear plant project rolling.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 16

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