TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida instructed his government on Wednesday to consider developing safer, smaller nuclear reactors, signaling a renewed emphasis on nuclear power years after many of the country’s plants were shut down.
Kishida made the comments at a “green transformation” conference to bolster the country’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Japan is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
Anti-nuclear sentiment and safety concerns have risen sharply in Japan since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, but the government is pushing for a return to nuclear power amid worries about power shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and global pressure to reduce greenhouse gases.
But the government has previously insisted it is not considering building new plants or replacing aging reactors, apparently to avoid stoking criticism from a wary public. Kishida’s comments on Wednesday represented a sharp shift from that position.
He said the panel presented proposals to develop and build “new innovative reactors designed with new safety mechanisms.” He called on the government to speed up consideration of “all possible measures” and make a decision by the end of the year.
“To overcome our impending power failure crisis, we must take maximum steps to mobilize all possible policies in the coming years and prepare for any emergency,” Kishida said.
“It is extremely important that we provide all opportunities to redesign stable energy supplies for our country,” Economy and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters. “From that point of view, we will also look at all options regarding nuclear energy.”
Most of Japan’s nuclear power plants were shut down after the Fukushima accident for safety checks under tightened standards.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami destroyed key cooling functions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011, causing three reactors to melt down and contaminating the region with massive radiation that still keeps some areas uninhabitable.
Since then, Japanese energy companies have prepared more than 20 reactors for decommissioning, largely because of the high cost of safety measures. Of the 33 operating reactors, 25 have been inspected for safety inspections by the Nuclear Safety Authority. Seventeen have been approved so far, but only 10 have restarted after getting consent from local communities, including three that are currently offline for regular safety checks.
The government has already announced plans to speed up restarts and restart up to nine reactors by winter to deal with the energy crisis. It aims to restart seven other reactors after next summer and further extend the service life of the aging reactors to more than 60 years from the original 40 years.
Some energy experts say so-called next-generation reactors, such as small modular reactors, can be expensive and add financial burden to plant operators.
Toyoshi Fuketta, commissioner of Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Safety Agency, told reporters on Wednesday that his agency’s safety standards are not affected by the government’s nuclear power policy. Japan still has no safety standards for next-generation reactors, and it will take more than a year to set such guidelines, while the safety of aging reactors must be carefully studied individually, he said.
Critics argue that the true cost of nuclear power would be much higher if the costs of radioactive waste management and final storage facilities were included, and that there are long-term environmental dangers from another Fukushima-like accident. They also say that Russia’s attacks on a nuclear plant in Ukraine show that they pose a potential security risk and should be better protected.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has come under fire for lax safety measures at another plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, where it is seeking to restart two reactors. The reactors are among seven that the government wants to quickly restart.
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