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Joint venture should help secure technology, personnel for N-power

The Yomiuri ShimbunHow should technology and human resources for nuclear power generation be secured? Electric power companies and the central government should continue making all possible efforts.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc., Chubu Electric Power Co., Inc., and two nuclear reactor manufacturers — Hitachi, Ltd., and Toshiba Corp. — have agreed to discuss joint operation of their nuclear power businesses.

They are keeping in mind the possible establishment of a joint venture that involves such tasks as the construction, maintenance, management and decommissioning of nuclear power plants. They will also consider cooperating on the research and development of nuclear reactors. The joint undertaking is aimed at integrating their human resources, maintaining relevant technology and passing it on to the future. Such endeavors have also been deemed effective in reducing costs and beefing up safety measures.

TEPCO and Chubu Electric have already established a joint firm for thermal power generation businesses. Both companies handle boiling-water reactors, the same type of reactors as those at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. They also have in common the fact that the prospects are dim for resuming the operation of their plants. They should expedite their efforts to realize a joint undertaking.

Yet many challenges lie ahead in realizing such an endeavor.

The biggest obstacle involves the liabilities totaling about ¥16 trillion that TEPCO owes regarding compensation for nuclear accidents at its Fukushima plant. The other three firms are wary of being forced to shoulder a portion of the debt. A new framework under which the three firms would be exempted from paying damages should be worked out.

The environment surrounding the nuclear power businesses has become increasingly tough. Of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan that were operating prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake, only nine have resumed their operations.

Promote reorganization

There is a limited number of reactors now in operation not only because it has taken a great deal of time for utilities firms to implement safety measures and for the government to inspect them, but also because there are many cases in which it is hard to gain the understanding of local communities.

Under the government’s basic energy plan, nuclear power is regarded as a key source of electricity. More efforts should be made for the public and private sectors to cooperate in working out measures to pass relevant technologies on to future generations and to secure human resources.

The government had attempted to find a way out of the difficulties in preserving technology and human resources through a campaign to sell nuclear power plants to foreign countries.

But China and Russia are mounting an export drive in the world market for nuclear power plants. A difficult situation continues, with, for instance, Hitachi having been forced to suspend its plan to build a nuclear power station in Britain.

With the future of the country’s nuclear power industry opaque, the people who will be the driving force of nuclear technology are shrinking. The number of students who enter universities or graduate schools to major in or study subjects related to nuclear power generation has dropped by about 20 percent since its peak in fiscal 2010.

It is hoped that electric power companies and manufacturers of nuclear reactors share the sense of crisis, thus spreading moves to reorganize the nuclear power business.

Yet in the event of a major accident at nuclear power stations, power companies are to assume unlimited liability, with no upper limit set in the amount of compensation. Such liability could extend to their reorganization partners.

What sort of systemic consideration would be needed to encourage power companies and manufacturers to collaborate? The government must consider this seriously.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 10, 2019)Speech



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