WHY JAPANESE GOVERNMENT MUST BACK NUCLEAR PLANTS EXPORTS MORE VIGOROUSLY
I feel as though the foundation of Japan as an advanced nation is beginning to crumble under its own weight. What we Japanese must particularly be concerned about at this juncture, I believe, is the deterioration of our central ministries.
It has just been revealed that the labor statistics surveys of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare have been improperly processed—or covered up, to be more direct—over the past 15 years. These statistics, including the monthly labor survey, represent the fundamental numbers on which the government’s assessments of the national economy are based. For instance, unemployment benefits are calculated on the basis of these numbers.
Every Japanese business establishment with more than 500 employees is subject to the monthly survey. But in Tokyo, where 1, 400 such businesses exist, the ministry has narrowed the survey group to only about one-third of the total since 2004. What is malicious about the incident is that the ministry has even come up with tampered software specifically programmed for automatic statistical processing in order to pretend that a thorough survey has been conducted. Obviously, the bureaucrats in charge were well aware of what was going on.
That bureaucrats in our central ministries, once known for the pride they took in their unsullied integrity, have juggled the statistics that form the basis of our nation’s policies makes me wonder if they may have degraded themselves to the level of their infamous Chinese counterparts. At one time, it was said that in Japan the government remains invulnerable even when the administration changes because Japanese bureaucrats are superb. Has that become a thing of the past?
In the US, public service personnel are replaced with a change of government, especially those in important positions. But in Japan, most bureaucrats remain in place regardless of which party comes to power. This is all the more reason why the bureaucrats in central ministries and agencies must recognize the immense responsibility they are expected to shoulder. Japan’s future is bound to be grossly impaired if our bureaucrats indulge in chicaneries and cover-ups like those at the Labor Ministry.
There will absolutely be no hope for us if both our bureaucrats and our lawmakers are incapable of executing their responsibilities. Sadly, that is exactly the situation we face with our energy policy, especially as regards electricity.
Politicians with No Mettle
The stability of our infrastructure and public welfare depends significantly on a secure supply of electricity. What happens when a stable electricity supply is suddenly disrupted, as was demonstrated in Hokkaido last September when a powerful earthquake hit the northernmost main island? The entire island, inhabited by more than 5 million people, suffered a blackout that lasted for days, causing about one-third of its dairy cattle to die. If Tomari, the only nuclear power plant on Hokkaido, had been in operation then, the blackout would presumably have been prevented. But no one dared propose a restart of the plant.
Why didn’t the people who count speak up, politicians and journalists alike? Firstly, most Japanese politicians prefer not to touch on nuclear power generation, as they fear it will lose them votes. Under these spineless law makers, the bureaucrats at the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy as well as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are resigned to assuming a low posture, minding their own security. Meanwhile, the Japanese media, which are adamantly opposed to nuclear power generation, chose not to mention Tomari in their reports—as if they did not even want to acknowledge the existence of the nuclear power station on the island.
At this point, a majority of Japan’s 50-odd nuclear power plants remain inoperable, bound rigidly by the absurd rules imposed by the Nuclear Regulation Agency. No clear-cut nuclear power policy has been incorporated in the government’s overall energy program. There are no signs of any of the idled power plants being restarted anytime soon. Not one new nuclear power plant is on the drawing board at this moment.
This peculiar trend will deprive Japanese nuclear power technicians of their jobs. Technology succession will cease and institutional memory will be lost, depriving our nuclear power industry of its foundation. A stable energy supply will no longer be tenable, leading to a collapse of our industrial base. Blackouts will happen repeatedly to undermine our public welfare as Japanese industrial plants continue to emit CO2 in large quantities in direct opposition to the trend of the rest of the world.
And yet the Japanese government has neglected to face up to the crux of the matter, continuing to make deceptive moves, as was shown when the “Monju” fast breeder reactor was decommissioned.
In December 2016, when the government decided to decommission the Monju, it explained that succession of technology would be made possible under an agreement that would enable Japanese nuclear technicians to participate in France’s next generation fast breeder reactor known as ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration).
Professor Koji Okamoto of the Graduate School of Tokyo University points out that Monju and ASTRID are two totally different nuclear reactors when it comes to their purposes and systems. While Monju is designed to produce plutonium fuels in generating electricity, notes Okamoto, ASTRID is designed to treat high-level radioactive wastes.
I believe the authorities raised the possibility of passing on fast breeder technology under the ASTRID program simply to silence criticism about the likely disruption of technology succession. That is why in November 2018, when the French government informed Japan of its decision to freeze the ASTRID program, neither responsible ministry even bothered to address the issue of a replacement for ASTRID. The important question at this point is whether or not Japan is ready to abandon the fast breeder technology it has nurtured over the years.
If nuclear power generation technology cannot be passed down in Japan, explains the government, Japanese firms can export nuclear power plants overseas and Japanese specialists can be nurtured there, rather than in Japan. However, even this route is being closed now.
On January 17, Hitachi Ltd. announced that plans for a \3 trillion ($27.6 billion) joint nuclear project on Anglesey Island in Wales would be put on hold. Hitachi and its two partners had committed to investing \1 trillion ($9.2 billion) in the project, with the British side investing the remainder, but Hitachi was apparently unable to raise the necessary funds in Japan.
Exorbitant “Project Costs” for Construction of Nuclear Power Plant
All the previous Japanese attempts to export nuclear power plants have fallen by the wayside, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s plan to export plants to Vietnam and Turkey. Hitachi had previously lost a deal to South Korea to export a plant to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its project to export a nuclear plant to Lithuania has also been frozen. Japanese corporations cannot afford to drop back any further. It is high time for the government to back them more aggressively.
I wonder if the reluctance on the part of the Japanese government to back exports may be because not only the government itself but the media, and therefore, the public, misunderstand the costs involved in constructing nuclear power plants overseas. Explains Tadashi Narabayashi, a specially-appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and one of the nation’s leading experts on nuclear matters:
“In Japan, a nuclear power plant is estimated to cost several hundred billion yen (several billion US dollars) to build and the electricity it generates is believed to be worth several trillion yen (several billion US dollars) ––a low-risk deal for plant makers. Meanwhile, overseas negotiations involve not only plant construction costs but maintenance and personnel costs for the next several decades—all contributing to “project costs.” Mixing up these various costs, the Japanese media report that the “construction” costs have ballooned to several trillion yen (several billion US dollars). This causes the government and corporations to draw back and turn public opinion against export of nuclear plants.
“It is crucial to differentiate between construction costs and the total project costs. The government must implement loan guarantees for the total project costs in order to make these exports happen. Hitachi lost the UAE deal to its South Korean rival firm because the South Korean government performed loan guarantees for the exporters, while our government failed to back Hitachi.”
In a cut-throat international competition, no company can ever expect to win without the government’s vigorous support.
Japan currently is pouring a vast amount of money into solar photovoltaic power generation. Annually, we consumers are made to pay \3.1 trillion (US$28.5 billion) in extra charges on our electricity bills just to support this new type of power generation, which accounts for only 5% of our annual electricity supply. Under the government’s feed-in tariff scheme for renewable energy, it is expected that by 2050 we will have paid an estimated total of \90 trillion (approximately US$830 billion) for photovoltaic power generation. The demand for this method of power generation is expected to still grow. But does it make sense to pay so vast an amount on solar photovoltaic power when its price is far above the international standard?
To consummate the export of its nuclear power plants to Wales, all Hitachi needed to cover its portion was a mere \900 billion (US$8.3 billion). Viewing the export of nuclear power plants in terms of national interests, the government should take the plunge to start aggressively backing Japanese corporations eager to build nuclear power plants abroad.
The London-headquartered World Nuclear Association predicts that by 2050 there will be a total of 1,000 nuclear power plants operating across the globe, 200 of them in China. The world is steadfastly shifting from fossil fuels to nuclear power generation. Japan must take every step necessary to prevent a collapse of its nuclear power industry. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 837 in the January 31, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)