Japan’s ambitions to reboot its nuclear industry risk being set back by a shortage of engineers and manufacturing capacity that has atrophied in the decade following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new policy calls for the construction of new nuclear power plants, raising hopes for Japanese manufacturers that are working on smaller reactors and other upgraded nuclear technologies.
But the industry’s nuclear supply chain is under strain, warned industry executives and experts. The 2011 accident triggered a massive exit of more than 20 manufacturers, including Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Sumitomo Electric Industries.
“We’ve had nothing happening with respect to new nuclear plants and slowly you start losing equipment suppliers, expertise and people,” said George Borovas, head of the nuclear practice at Hunton Andrews Kurth in Tokyo. “If you lose a generation of that, then it’s really hard to recover and it’s a big concern for the industry.”
Japan sourced about a third of its energy from 54 nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster. Now, only nine are operational.
“Not only did construction cease, but jobs such as replacing and repairing equipment that would have been needed if plants had been in operation were also drastically reduced,” said Tomoko Murakami, senior economist at the Institute of Energy Economics.
In a further sign of the shrinking industry, Japan is no longer able to domestically procure protective tubes placed inside a nuclear reactor to contain radiation after Zirco Products, an important manufacturer, collapsed in 2017.
The number of skilled engineers responsible for manufacturing nuclear equipment has decreased by about 45 per cent, according to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers’ Association. There are also fewer students in nuclear engineering for universities and graduate schools in Japan, with the number declining 14 per cent since 2011.
Despite the fallout from the disaster, some companies, such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hitachi and Toshiba, are investing in nuclear. The disruption of gas supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also motivated countries worldwide to reassess their nuclear power policy.
“If the prime minister can get public opinion on his side, Japan can definitely be a leader in these new, advanced designs,” said Neil Hirst, an honorary senior fellow of Imperial College London, who was a former director of the International Energy Agency.
Along with Rolls-Royce in the UK, France’s EDF and US-based NuScale Power, GE Hitachi is also pushing for small modular reactors, which they believe can deliver nuclear power with less cost and risk.
Advocates argue SMRs are more cost effective and quicker to build, though critics say such reactors cannot compete against economies of scale achieved by large ones.
“We believe we are the fastest in terms of SMR development speed among players in the west,” according to Keisaku Shibatani, who leads communications and government relations for Hitachi’s energy business.
“Although we haven’t received orders yet, Canada, the US and Poland have agreed to construct our BWRX-300,” he added, referring to the water-cooled small reactors GE Hitachi have developed.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is working on an upgraded version of nuclear reactors that are deemed safer but based on conventional technology.
Its SRZ-1200, an advanced pressurised water reactor developed with four domestic utility companies, is equipped with additional safety measures that will reduce the risk of radioactivity release in the event of a meltdown.
“The SRZ is based on proven technology with new safety mechanism while small modular reactors are still in the phase of requiring various demonstration experiments,” said Akihiko Kato, MHI’s nuclear division head.
He forecast that its SRZ will be commercialised in the mid-2030s while it will probably take until the 2040s for SMRs to begin operations in Japan.
“There is no time to lose for the survival of our domestic supply chains, which could break down if we had to wait,” Kato said.