Energy Fukushima Japan nuclear energy Policy science Technology

Former TEPCO CEO offers thoughts on Fukushima and Japan’s energy future

Former TEPCO CEO offers thoughts on Fukushima and Japan’s energy future
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Enlarge / Naomi Hirose, vice chairman of Tokyo Electrical Energy Co. Holdings Inc. (TEPCO).

The meltdown of the reactors at Fukushima Daichi has modified how many individuals view the dangers of nuclear energy, inflicting nations around the globe to revise their plans for additional development and revisit the security laws for present crops. The catastrophe additionally gave the world a first-hand view of the challenges of managing accidents within the absence of a useful infrastructure and the prices when these accidents happen in a densely populated, absolutely developed nation.

Earlier this week, New York’s Japan Society hosted a person with a singular perspective on all of this. Naomi Hirose was an government at Tokyo Electrical Energy Firm (TEPCO) when the meltdown occurred, and he turned its CEO whereas he was struggling to get the restoration underneath management. Ars attended Hirose’s presentation and had the chance to interview him. As a result of the 2 discussions partly overlapped, we’ll embrace info from each under.

The accident and security

Throughout his presentation, Hirose famous that the epicenter of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake was solely 180 kilometers from Fukushima. However initially, security protocols kicked in; referred to as a scram, the protocols led to regulate rods being inserted into the reactors to close down the nuclear reactions and deliver the plant to a halt. Since this had occurred beforehand in response to earthquakes, Hirose stated individuals have been feeling assured the state of affairs was underneath management.

However the earthquake itself had broken the facility strains that fed the plant, leaving it reliant on inner energy to run the cooling pumps. And the supply of that energy was swept away when the tsunami generated by the quake inundated all six of the reactors on the location. This left the plant unable to chill its reactors; a number of melted down, and the hydrogen they generated finally led to explosions that wrecked the buildings that housed them. Hirose means that these explosions have been probably sparked as issues shifted and fell as a consequence of aftershocks.

This has led nations all over the world to tighten their guidelines relating to backup gear and to re-evaluate the infrastructure they assumed can be obtainable to assist handle the accident. We additionally received an opportunity to ask Hirose about how he seen the dangers of nuclear energy after this expertise:

We discovered that security tradition is essential. We noticed that we have been in all probability a bit of boastful. We spent an enormous sum of money to enhance the security of that plant earlier than the accident. We thought that this was sufficient. We discovered that you simply by no means assume that is sufficient. We’ve got to study many issues from everywhere in the world. 9/11 could possibly be some classes for nuclear energy stations—it isn’t simply nuclear accidents in different nations, the whole lot might be a lesson.

So we study: “Do not stop improving the safety.” This can be a technical matter, a scientific matter, and we will make these dangers as small as attainable.

Re-establishing management

Within the quick aftermath of the accident, what had gone improper in a few of the reactors wasn’t even clear, contaminated groundwater was an enormous problem, and a considerable exclusion zone pressured the evacuation of hundreds of residents close by. Simply to do something on the location required big quantities of security gear.

“[In the] first several years, we didn’t have a really clear plan, because it’s troubleshooting,” Hirose informed Ars. “Many many things took place, so we had to settle down these things. Now the condition of the plant is very stable.”

With the steadiness, one of many first steps chosen was to take away spent gasoline, which was saved in elevated tanks within the reactor buildings. Reactor 4 shut down when the earthquake struck, and over 1,500 gasoline rods have since been safely eliminated. At reactor three, rubble masking the spent gasoline pool has been cleared, and a brand new roof incorporating a crane has been constructed, paving the best way to take away the spent gasoline there.

However the melted-down reactors pose a a lot bigger problem. “We don’t know exactly the condition of the debris, so we developed several different types of robotics and let them go into the reactor building,” Hirose advised Ars. “Now the robotics are taking movies, collecting all the data—temperature, radioactivity. Now we are planning how to attack, how to go to those debris. So maybe it takes a few more years; it depends on analyzing the situation.”

In the meantime, decontamination work and time have decreased the onsite danger in order that staff solely have to put on exposure-tracking badges. The world of the exclusion zone with above-background radiation ranges have additionally shrunk significantly.

“There are only two towns left in the evacuation zone—it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Hirose stated throughout our interview. “Even those two towns—they are planning to develop a new city hall, new spaces for commercial [activity]. Since it’s been 7.5 years already, all the people will not come back. Kids start going to school in the places they went. Each has different situations. But we’d like to have those towns available for everybody. Still, those two towns are prohibited to come back, but we’d like to have that situation cleared.”

Bearing the prices

None of this comes cheaply. Once we have been discussing dangers, Hirose acknowledged, “Once there is a serious accident, the costs of these things is enormous. And we understood that, and everybody realized that.”

However who carries that value? Within the US, the federal government steps in as soon as prices exceed $12.6 billion. That is not the case for TEPCO. “Japanese law—it’s called nuclear damage compensation law—clarified that no matter what the size of the damages, it’s singly the nuclear operator that has all the responsibility without fault. So even if we did [make any] mistake, the operator has to pay. The Price-Anderson Act in the US stipulates the limit in the damage. Maybe we need that kind of limit. It’s been discussed in Japan, and it’s a really difficult point.”

(“I mean, we had the accident, so maybe we shouldn’t say anything about this,” he stated at this level.)

Within the instant aftermath of the accident, this pushed TEPCO’s funds to a really dangerous place. As soon as the location stabilized, so did the prices, however they continue to be monumental. Throughout his public dialogue, Hirose stated that they are operating at about $5 billion a yr, and that is anticipated to proceed for 30 years. “We’ve made enough for the past three years, but we have to do it for 27 more,” Hirose informed the viewers. That may basically restrict the actions the corporate can take for the subsequent a number of many years.

Japan’s future

What’s that energy financial system going to seem like? Previous to Fukushima, Hirose was an enormous advocate of accelerating electrification of energy use. He introduced that up in our dialogue as nicely.

Electrification undoubtedly will increase—like electrical automobiles and heat-pump know-how. These issues are a lot far more environment friendly in comparison with combustion engines or typical heating methods. Electrical automobiles are very environment friendly, so they do not use a variety of electrical energy. Based mostly on our calculations, even when all of the cars flip into electrical automobiles within the Tokyo space, our demand for electrical energy solely goes up 15 % or so. So it isn’t an enormous, massive potential transition.

And nonetheless, the full energy consumption would decline very, very a lot, as a result of we do not use any gasoline. And if that electrical energy is offered by renewables or nuclear, carbon dioxide would lower dramatically. I feel electrification is likely one of the issues that may lower the whole demand for energy. It is simply the way to generate that quantity of electrical energy, which relies upon on if it is nuclear, photo voltaic, wind… Electrification and decarbonization are the 2 key issues.

Any elevated demand as a consequence of electrification, nevertheless, will happen towards a common decline in energy use in Japan. Whereas already a really environment friendly society, the Japanese managed to curtail energy use even additional as all the nation’s nuclear crops have been shut down within the wake of Fukushima. “Have you been to Tokyo? Shops are very bright, very, um, shining with lights. It’s gorgeous—maybe you need sunglasses,” Hirose steered. “But people started thinking that maybe that was too much.”

Critically, what may need been short-term measures have produced what look like everlasting modifications. “The consumption of electricity has not come back yet,” Hirose informed Ars. “Maybe it never will, because the population of Japan is declining. I don’t know if in the long term the demand for electricity goes up.”

Nonetheless, the nation might want to proceed to supply electrical energy whereas decarbonizing its grid to satisfy worldwide agreements. And the federal government’s plans for doing so embrace continued use of nuclear energy. “The Japanese government set a target: 20-22 percent is generated by nuclear in 2030,” Hirose stated. “In order to keep this number, we need to develop new nuclear power. So far, all the electric power companies and operators focus on the restart of the already existing nuclear power plants. Everybody is not in the mood to build a new one, because they are busy handling the restart of the existing plants.”

If the brand new crops are ever constructed, Japan will get the prospect to see if it could keep away from the huge value overruns which have plagued tasks elsewhere.

However that is a really giant if, and throughout Hirose’s presentation, an viewers member identified that greater than 60 % of the Japanese inhabitants want to see the nation remove nuclear energy. Different low-carbon sources, nevertheless, face vital hurdles in Japan. “Solar is very popular. Wind is possible, particularly offshore wind. But the Japanese Sea suddenly becomes deep, so it’s not like Northern Europe,” Hirose informed Ars. “It’s a little technically difficult. Geothermal is very possible. Unfortunately, all the possible places are in national parks or hot-spring towns, so there aren’t many good places. But technically, it’s possible.”

All of which leaves Japan’s long-term energy future unsettled. However, within the instant future, consideration will stay on the restart of the prevailing nuclear energy crops and the identification of the melted gasoline on the ground of the remaining reactors.

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Tejas Sachdeva

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