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Japan's aging fleet of reactors spell trouble for energy blueprint

Country needs 30 nuclear plants running but many are more than 30-years old

Riken aims to find out if it is possible to transform nuclear waste into precious metals.

TOKYO -- Japan's nuclear power policy is at a crossroads as nearly half of the 42 nuclear reactors are at least 30 years old. The planned life span is 40. While most of the 42 are currently shutdown following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, operators will need to decide which ones to reactivate.

Kansai Electric Power has been contemplating scrapping two aging nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture. Reactors No. 1 and No. 2 at the Oi plant are designed differently from other reactors and are costly to operate. This has lead some experts to believe that Kansai Electric's decision will not necessarily cause other operators to follow suit. Yet, if it triggers a chain of closures, Japan's medium- and long-term blueprint for its energy mix will have to go back to the drawing board.

Need to reactivate

The government wants nuclear energy to account for between 20% and 22% of the country's energy sources by 2030. That steep climb from the meager 2% in fiscal 2016 will only be met if around 30 of the shutdown reactors are reactivated.

About 20 of Japan's 42 reactors have been running for more than 30 years. Five of the 42 reactors are back online, but of these, four have been in use for more than 30 years.

Keeping old reactors running can be costly and a risk to public safety, which is why many operators are inclined to scrap older units and reactivate only those that are comparatively safer.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry does not oppose this, as it shows that companies are considering the cost-effectiveness of maintaining aging reactors. The issue boils down to whether Japan's energy demands can be met, which drives energy policy.

Alternative decisions

If the target is deemed out of reach, the country will have to look into alternative energy sources. Should renewables such as solar and wind power be considered, their costs would have to come down. There is also the issue of supply, which must be stable and unaffected by weather conditions.

Thermal power is also on the table as an alternative, but choosing this would mean higher fuel costs and more carbon dioxide emissions.

Meanwhile, to achieve the desired ratio of nuclear power to other energy sources, old reactors will have to be replaced -- or supplemented -- with new ones that have high output capacities and can be easily managed. While the focus is on whether government will authorize replacement of existing reactors, observers are calling for a cautious approach.

Talks on which reactors to recommission may deepen discussion on balancing energy sources in order to maintain a stable supply of electricity.

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