Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors. Currently, the amount has been reduced to only nine. Fumio Kishida, the country’s prime minister, wants to give this energy model a new chance. However, progress may occur much slower than expected.
Japan faces a series of challenges that, according to the Financial Times, are not easy to overcome. For one thing, there is a notable shortage of nuclear engineers. On the other hand, the manufacturing capacity of nuclear equipment has been considerably reduced in recent years. The latter, due to the weakening of the related supply chain.
The challenge of going back to nuclear power
For a long time, Japan developed a major and risky nuclear strategy. The nation benefited from this system, with its successes and failures, which it took decades to build and launch. All this was suspended in 2011 with the Fukushima accident caused by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Much of that entire energy model has vanished. While some of the nuclear reactors that had shut down are back in operation (in 2021, only four were working), problems are beginning to appear when it comes to building new generation nuclear reactors, safer, more reliable and with better performance.
In the years after 2011, more than 20 companies related to the manufacture of nuclear equipment left the country or collapsed financially. The consequence? Japan, for the moment, cannot self-supply certain key parts to build new reactors, such as containment booms made of zirconium alloy.
But, as we say, this is not the only problem. The Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association warns that the number of engineers needed to make nuclear equipment has decreased by 45% since 2011. And the outlook is not encouraging. There are also fewer nuclear engineering students, specifically, 14% fewer.
Japan’s nuclear power future now rests on a handful of companies with enough economic muscle to stay in the country. According to Nikkei Asia, these include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy (a joint venture with General Electric).
Both companies are working on reactors that build on existing technology and improve it to make it safer. But, yes, it is expected that these new plants become operational in the 2030s. They are also betting on small modular reactors (SMR) of 300 MW(e) per unit.
Images: IAEA Imagebank
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