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Japan weighs exports of safer, next-gen nuclear reactors

Order from Poland, worth as much as $9bn, may be there for the taking

A Greenpeace slogan is projected on a Polish coal-fired power plant in 2013: The country wants the latest nuclear reactors as a cleaner energy option.   © AP

TOKYO -- Japan's government is mulling plans to export next-generation nuclear reactors that promise a greater degree of safety, with Poland lined up as the probable first destination.

The move, which would involve high temperature gas reactors, or HTGRs, is part of the government's infrastructure export strategy. Poland, which is turning to nuclear power as a cleaner energy option, is looking at acquiring about 20 such reactors -- equipment worth more than 1 trillion yen ($9 billion).

Tokyo will inform Poland of its intentions by the end of this month at the earliest -- though it may face competition from China for the order.

The reactors in question use helium gas as a coolant, unlike conventional reactors that use water. This removes the risk of chemical reactions and vaporization -- and thus the risk of hydrogen or steam explosions. 

A government source said the fuel and other features are designed to prevent a meltdown even when the cooling systems fail -- as they did at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan back in 2011.

Poland relies heavily on coal-fired power plants. But in the wake of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the country wants to switch to HTGRs, which emit virtually no carbon dioxide. 

The Japanese government envisions taking orders through a public-private partnership and is soliciting the involvement of Hitachi, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Fuji Electric and other companies armed with related technologies. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency is proceeding with HTGR research and development for experimental use -- not yet for commercial purposes.

Using an experimental reactor as a foundation, Japan would ask Poland to cooperate on the development and export of a commercial unit. The Eastern European country, a source said, has a high level of interest in Japanese technologies.

But China, too, is developing this type of reactor. The source said Poland has hinted at the possibility of awarding China the contract.


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