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Interview: Fukui Governor Sugimoto on restarting old nuclear reactors

Interviewed by Oda Kenji

 

Kansai Electric Power’s nuclear reactors that are older than 40 years will restart in June for the first time since a 40-year operation limit was set on reactors following the nuclear accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

 

The Asahi Shimbun: Why did you agree to restarting the old nuclear reactors?

 

Fukui Governor Sugimoto Tatsuji: I made the decision based on Fukui Prefecture’s three nuclear policy principles, which are the safety of the reactors, the understanding and consent of the residents of the hosting municipalities, and the permanent well-being of the region. We also considered the decisions of the townships and the prefectural assembly, as well as a report compiled by an expert committee. We also made requests to the central government and KEPCO, including requests for promoting the local economy and educating the Japanese people about nuclear power, and listened to explanations of the government’s and KEPCO’s plans before reaching a decision to agree to restarting the reactors.  

 

Asahi: [When the 40-year limit was set,] the Democratic Party of Japan administration at the time was sure it would be extremely rare to operate nuclear reactors longer than 40 years.

 

Sugimoto: You must ask the central government about that. The Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law says that the lifespan of a nuclear reactor is 40 years, with a one-time extension permitted within the scope of government ordinance. Although reactors over 40 years of age are called “old,” about 20% of the world’s nuclear reactors that are operating are more than 40 years old. Is it truly a global norm to call reactors “old” after their operational life exceeds 40 years?

 

Asahi: The central government offered an additional 2.5 billion yen in subsidies per reactor.

 

Sugimoto: That was not the deciding factor. In the past, subsidies have been extended on occasion to local municipalities that host nuclear reactors. However, it is true that the subsidy will benefit the lives of Fukushima residents in a more permanent way.

 

Asahi: The governor ultimately makes a decision on restarting a nuclear reactor in their prefecture. How do you feel about the responsibility that a decision to restart a reactor entails?

 

Sugimoto: The prime responsibility for the safety of the nuclear reactor rests with the utility. And it is the national government that is responsible for setting safety standards and carrying out inspections. The prefectural government is involved in the process to protect the interests of residents. In other words, the central government and the utility ensure safety, and the prefecture further enhances safety from the local point of view. Their cooperation should have a positive impact on surrounding regions. In this regard, I believe the prefecture’s main responsibility is to monitor the central government and the utility.

 

Asahi: If another nuclear accident occurred, its impact would likely extend beyond prefectural borders. What is your view on local understanding?

 

Sugimoto: Fukui has cooperated with the central government’s nuclear policy, contributing to stable energy production and the development of consumption centers. In 2004, 11 people died in a large accident at  Mihama nuclear reactor no. 3. By squarely facing the problems and solving them one by one, Fukui prefecture’s nuclear-related divisions have developed more expertise than any of their counterparts at other prefectures. We also have an expert committee to ensure safety. Our situation is different from other regions.

 

Asahi: What would you like to say to the residents of the consumption centers?

 

Sugimoto: It is truly regrettable that those who consume the power criticize the nuclear reactor sites. I urge the government and the utility to promote public awareness and understanding of the safety, necessity, and importance of nuclear power.

 

If the nation feels that nuclear power is dangerous, then a serious discussion should be held about whether Japan needs electricity generated by nuclear energy, and if the answer is yes, then the discussion should include who is going to bear the burden of nuclear energy production. It would be wonderful if we could rely entirely on renewable energy sources, but the reality is not that simple.

 

Asahi: Don’t you have any misgivings about the future of nuclear energy?

 

Sugimoto: Discussion of the new basic energy plan is currently ongoing in the government. It needs to be clarified whether nuclear energy will be eliminated eventually or maintained at a certain level as the government tries to secure a stable supply of electricity in the future, while aiming at achieving a carbon-neutral (zero-carbon emissions) society in 2050. We have urged the central government to clarify its plans regarding building new facilities, adding to existing ones, and replacing old ones, all of which takes time. If the future path is left unclear, technological development and training will stagnate, and that would threaten safety. As the head of a prefecture that hosts nuclear plants, I am deeply concerned.

 

Asahi: Globally, the share of nuclear power in energy production is on the decline.

 

Sugimoto: A government council, of which I am a member, has concluded that trying to meet the demand for energy entirely with renewables would be prohibitively expensive, because Japan only has a limited number of sites that are suitable for solar and wind power generation. To achieve zero-carbon emissions, many council members appear to believe that nuclear power is necessary.

 

Asahi: Isn’t is necessary to find a way to achieve regional development without relying on nuclear power?

 

Sugimoto: In Fukui Prefecture, seven of the 15 nuclear reactors are scheduled for decommissioning. The extension of the lifespan of reactors is permitted only once, up to 20 years, so these older reactors will be allowed to operate for only 15 more years. So Fukui needs to develop industries other than nuclear power generation to realize a viable economy. The nuclear-waste recycling business, after decommissioning, is one possible industry. Another would be a new hydrogen-based energy industry. We are hoping to realize an economy that doesn’t require nuclear energy production to thrive.

 

Sugimoto Tatsuji, born in 1962, entered the now-defunct Ministry of Home Affairs in 1986. He worked for 32 years on issues of decentralization of government and depopulation in rural areas. After serving as deputy governor of Fukui, he was elected governor in 2019.

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