October 2002

“National policy” being forced on power firms

The Asahi Shimbun, POINT OF VIEW, October 5, 2002
By Hitoshi Yoshioka

[Posted 08/10/2002]

The government's reprocessing/pluthermal policy is placing an extremely heavy economic burden on the power industry.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has disclosed that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) was falsifying its own reactor inspection documents.

Even though the documents are dated 1987 through 1995, they are a chilling reminder that even today, safety could well be sacrificed for profitability in the operation of nuclear power stations. TEPCO's power-station chiefs and head-office directors are suspected of systematic involvement in the cover-up, which I believe was the case.

The TEPCO cover-up reminds me of the meltdown of the No. 4 unit at Chernobyl in 1986. Structural defects in design of the reactor was the root cause of the accident, but what actually triggered the meltdown was a gross human error-or negligence, if you will.

The director of this plant, determined to gain a promised reward for completing the construction on time, postponed the required safety tests (for starting up the emergency core-cooling system through turbine inertia) until there was no choice but to do the tests under the worst possible circumstances.

Until the recent liberalization of the power supply market, Japanese power companies were heavily protected by regional monopolies and a ``fair rate of return'' price structure.

Although the companies have yet to face any serious competition for survival, they have nevertheless come under constant pressure to raise their economic efficiency, lest the government implement some truly tough deregulation policy to accommodate public opinion.

For the power companies, the temptation to suppress any ``inconvenient'' information is actually much stronger now than before.

The government and the power industry alike must convince the public-and especially people living near nuclear power plants-of the safety of nuclear power generation under the burden of deregulation of electric power. Otherwise, they have no choice but to give up nuclear power generation. Simply put, the reason why the public keeps wondering how safety and economy could ever go together is that nuclear power generation is not cheap.

Purely based on per-kilowatt cost under a certain set of conditions, nuclear power generation is cheaper than other methods. According to the latest estimates by the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy in 1999, based on average power generation costs over 40 years, it costs 5.9 yen per hour to generate 1 kilowatt by nuclear generation, as opposed to 6.5 yen from coal, 6.4 yen from natural gas, and 10.2 yen from petroleum.

The fact, however, is that these estimates do not factor in various infrastructure costs-such as the costs of construction and maintenance of pump-power generators and long-distance power-transmission networks, and the costs of acquiring and maintaining power generation sites.

Also completely excluded from the agency estimates are all sorts of generous government subsidies and funding for research and development.

Another very important matter I must point out is that so-called back-end costs (for various processes involved in the handling of spent nuclear fuel) are quite markedly undervalued. In particular, fuel reprocessing cost is deliberately underestimated at 0.63 yen per kilowatt-hour.

This figure is based on the scenario that spent fuel will be reprocessed over an extremely long period, using a hypothetical interest rate of 3 percent to convert the cost to present net value. With this trick, the nominal cost is reduced to about one-half the actual cost.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPCO) estimates the reprocessing cost of Japan Nuclear Fuel's Rokkashomura commercial plant per ton at 390 million yen at a high facility utilization rate of 83 percent. This automatically raises the generation cost per kilowatt-hour by more than 1 yen.

The government's reprocessing/pluthermal policy is placing an extremely heavy economic burden on the power industry. If only the government would spare the industry the burden of cooperating with this policy, the power companies would be able to spend more time and money on the improvement of safety-a precondition for their survival in this era of ``aging nuclear reactors.''

The government must bear in mind that its most urgent duty is to address the real problems of the risks and costs involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, not publicize highly fictitious estimates or repeat inane excuses for promoting nuclear power generation.

There is no question about the serious accountability of TEPCO executives and the individuals involved in the falsification of documents. But a radical review of the government's nuclear policy is indispensable if a reliable, open and honest safety assurance system is to be implemented.

I am gravely concerned that the TEPCO scam, together with the new energy policy law passed on June 7, may have provided just the ammunition the government needed to force the power industry into closer cooperation with its ``national policy.''

The industry is reluctant to support the expanded reprocessing/pluthermal policy and appears hesitant, for business reasons, to build new reactors for commercial nuclear power generation.

If the government is using the TEPCO scam as leverage to force the reluctant power industry into submission and allow the bureaucracy to exercise even greater dictatorial control, there will be a tremendous price to pay later.

Hitoshi Yoshioka is a professor of history of science at Kyushu University's graduate school. A graduate of the University of Tokyo, where he majored in physics, Yoshioka is a council member of the Atomic Energy Commission of the Cabinet Office. He contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.

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