Kyoto -- Japanese utility Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has started lifting nuclear fuel rods from the spent fuel pool at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in what could be a significant step towards regaining public trust in the sector and speeding up the restoration of nuclear power.
Tepco started removing the nuclear fuel rods from the plant's No. 3 reactor today, four years later than originally planned because of technical difficulties. This is the first time that Tepco has begun removing fuel from any of the three melted-down reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. It removed the fuel rods from the No. 4 reactor, which was hit by a hydrogen blast during the March 2011 accident at the plant but did not suffer a meltdown, in 2014.
The company has set an April 2021 deadline to remove all 52 unused rods and 514 spent rods inside the pool located above the container vessel of the No. 3 nuclear reactor, which was damaged by a hydrogen blast and a meltdown. Fuel removal work is then scheduled to start after 2023 at the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, which also suffered meltdowns. Decommissioning work is projected to take at least 30-40 years to complete.
The Fukushima Daiichi accident has eroded public trust in nuclear power, making it difficult for the Japanese power industry to swiftly restore nuclear operations under tougher safety regulations despite support from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and government of premier Shinzo Abe. Power firms have been forced to decommission 17 reactors since the disaster because of huge safety costs, leaving the country with 37 commercial nuclear reactors that have 37,635MW of power generation capacity.
Nine reactors have so far restarted. But no additional reactors are expected to be reactivated this year, forcing utilities to continue their heavy reliance on thermal power output. Kansai Electric Power was previously targeting to restart the 826MW Takahama No.1 reactor after August this year, but has decided to postpone the start-up until 2020.
Japan's powerful business lobby Keidanren earlier this month released a proposal for a major reform of power policy and the electricity system beyond 2030, while criticising the country's continued dependence on thermal power more than eight years after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. The group is urging the government to accelerate efforts to restart closed nuclear reactors and make a serious push to replace and develop new reactors.
Keidanren is also asking the government to consider allowing reactors to operate for more than the current limit of 60 years, amid concern Japan may not hit its 2030 target of meeting 20-22pc of its power output from nuclear plants even if all remaining reactors are restarted. The 37 existing reactors include four at the Fukushima Daini plant, which are likely to be scrapped in the face of opposition from the host government in Fukushima prefecture
The latest statement contradicts an earlier comment by Keidanren chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi, who is also chairman of Japanese technology giant Hitachi, that questioned a government policy to push for nuclear restoration despite public opposition. That comment came on the eve of Hitachi's decision to suspend its UK nuclear projects. But Nakanishi has since toned down his stance in the face of discord within the organisation.
Keidanren's proposal also calls on the government to create an environment that fosters active power infrastructure investment, particularly in renewables and nuclear power. This would be likely to allow Japan to pursue its climate goals while strengthening industrial and business competitiveness, it said.
Abe's government is scheduled to finalise its long-term strategy to move towards a zero-carbon society by the G20 summit in Osaka on 28-29 June. The government is planning to expand renewable power output in the run-up to 2050, while maintaining its existing 2030 power mix target for thermal fuels, such as LNG, coal and oil, to account of 56pc of output, with nuclear and renewable sources making up the remainder.
Japan relied on thermal power for 81pc of total output in the April 2017 to March 2018 fiscal year, while renewables and nuclear accounted for 16pc and 3pc respectively. The use of coal for power edged down by 2pc from a year earlier to 112mn t in 2018, according to government data. LNG and oil consumption for power generation also fell, dropping by 4pc to 51mn t and by 17pc to 116,000 b/d last year.