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Nuclear sector- Facts and insights on Japan

May 15, 2023

Arai Shiro, President of JAIF

Current Status of Nuclear Power Plants and Nuclear Energy Policies in Japan

Currently, there are 36 nuclear power plants (NPPs) in Japan (excluding those undergoing decommissioning). This number includes 3 plants under construction and 27 which have applied for the safety review by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) under the new regulatory standards. Of those 27, 10 have been restarted, 7 are undergoing improvements further to the safety review and the remaining 10 are still being examined by NRA.

The Japanese government makes the Strategic Energy Basic Plan, which provides the basic direction for Japan’s energy policy, every 3 years. The current plan was approved by the Cabinet in October 2021. Within this plan, nuclear is clearly recognized as an important base-load power source contributing to long-term supply-and-demand stability. The nuclear energy’s targeted share of 20 to 22 percent of the electricity mix in 2030 remains unchanged compared to the previous edition. The plan also states that nuclear energy should play an important role at a certain level to ensure carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Green Transformation (GX) Implementation Council

In July last year, the Green Transformation – or GX Implementation Council – was established under the direct leadership of Prime Minister Kishida. Its aim is to initiate socio-economic reforms in all areas of industry, including energy, with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Basic policy relating to implementing GX was approved by the Cabinet on 20 February 2023. Together with renewable, nuclear energy is to be used to its maximum potential to ensure energy security and decarbonization.

Specifically, this policy calls for:

  • Promoting the restart of Japanese nuclear power plants with an emphasis on safety – based on sincere reflection – and taking into account the lessons learned from the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
  • Additional limited extensions of operating lifetime over 60 years.
  • Development and construction of next-generation advanced reactors.
  • Promotion of the nuclear fuel cycle, conducting steady and efficient decommissioning, and a national approach to implementing final disposal of high-level radioactive waste.
  • Development of the necessary business environment.
  • Enhancement of government support for research and development, the fostering of human resources, and maintaining and strengthening supply chains.

In order to implement this policy, GX decarbonization power supply bills were approved by the Cabinet on 28 February and presented to the current session of the National Diet for deliberation.

Recent Developments regarding Advanced Reactors and SMRs

  • Government-led initiatives

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Promotion initiative (NEXIP) was first launched in 2019 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). NEXIP supports private companies in their efforts to develop advanced nuclear technologies via budgetary measures, the sharing of research and development facilities and infrastructure, and promoting human resource development.

In July of last year, a technology roadmap for innovative reactor development was published by the Working Group on Innovative Reactors of METI. Five categories of reactors were selected for development, and an R&D schedule for each was presented. The five categories are: innovative light-water reactors (LWRs), small LWRs, fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and nuclear fusion reactors. Large-scale LWRs with safety-enhancing technologies are included under innovative LWRs, and the draft plan aims for their commercial operation by the mid-2030s. The roadmap for small LWRs eyes commercial operation in the early 2040s.

  • Industry-led initiatives

At Toshiba, next-generation boiling-water reactors (BWRs) are being developed, as are iBRs, which are large reactors with enhanced safety and economic efficiency, based on proven advanced BWR (ABWR) designs. Toshiba is also working on small modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactors with an electric output of 250 MWe.

Hitachi-GE is working on a small LWR called BWRX-300, with electric output of 300 MWe and passive safety systems, including natural circulation cooling. It is also developing a small sodium-cooled fast reactor, “PRISM,” and light-water-cooled fast reactors (RBWRs) based on proven light-water reactor technology.

At Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), research and development is underway on a next-generation pressurized-water reactor (PWR), the SRZ-1200. This is an innovative light-water reactor that will serve as a stable, large-size power source. MHI is also developing a small modular reactor with an electric output of 300 MWe. MHI continues its R&D into high-temperature gas-cooled reactors for heat to generate large quantities of hydrogen and is also developing fast reactors able to effectively use resources and reduce nuclear waste, and portable micro reactors which could prove potentially useful on remote islands.

Industry Trends

The Japanese nuclear industry has annual sales of about 1.9 trillion yen (or 14 billion dollars), and some 80,000 employees. Sales now are almost at the level prior to the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi, although only 10 plants are being operated out of the 27 which have applied for review. About a quarter of those sales reflect work on safety measures to comply with the new regulatory standards. Therefore, many companies are concerned about the future of their business because of uncertain prospects for restarting existing reactors and new build projects. It is also difficult for nuclear companies to make capital investments and hire new employees. Therefore, continuation and preservation of technology and know-how is a real concern. Similarly, there have been fewer opportunities for employees to improve their skills because so few plants are in operation.

In order to use nuclear energy to its maximum potential, early restart of existing plants, extending the operating lifetimes, and construction of new units and replacement of existing units is necessary. Establishing a stable nuclear policy is also essential to maintain the foundations of the nuclear industry – including supply chains, human resources and technological infrastructure. Therefore, in July 2022, JAIF released its own proposal on maintaining and strengthening supply chains. As part of this proposal, we called for

  1. Implementation of all possible measures for the early restart of NPPs.
  2. Clearly stating the energy plan, which calls for construction of new NPPs.
  3. Developing a business environment that promotes investment in nuclear power.
  4. Expansion of government support for technological development and demonstration projects relating to innovative reactors, including large LWRs.
  5. Providing comprehensive support measures for the promotion of equipment and component exports.

There have been some moves by Japanese manufacturers to participate in overseas nuclear projects, in order to maintain and strengthen supply chains. For instance, JAEA, MHI and others have concluded a Memorandum of Understanding MoU with US-based TerraPower enabling cooperation in developing fast reactors. JAEA also participated in a British program to demonstrate high-temperature gas-cooled reactors and agreed to cooperate with the National Centre for Nuclear Research of Poland in its project to construct an experimental reactor (high-temperature gas-cooled), Poland’s next-generation reactor. Last but not least, JGC Holdings and IHI (formerly known as Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries) invested in a NuScale project in 2021.

On 6 March 2023, METI established the Nuclear Supply Chain Platform (NSCP) to support companies in Japan engaged in designing, developing and commercializing equipment, facilities and component materials for advanced reactors. As of March, approximately 50 companies have signed up to the NSCP.

Despite the fact that it takes time to respond to various key issues, such as promptly increasing the number of reactors that can be restarted, smoothly carrying out the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP, promoting the nuclear fuel cycle, realizing HLW final disposal, improving public understanding, etc., the Japanese nuclear industry is finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the government’s recent policy to promote the use of nuclear energy.

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