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Politics

Japan taps private sector for safer, cheaper reactors

Project unites team of experts to pursue next-generation technology

A reactor vessel at a Kagoshima Prefecture nuclear plant. Japan is considering gas-cooled reactors as a future option.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan will launch a public-private initiative to develop next-generation nuclear reactors that are safer and less expensive, hoping to spur a renewal of aging plants and keep atomic power as a viable energy source.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is in talks to create a forum within fiscal 2018 that will include power companies and reactor builders to kick off the project.

The government's new energy plan, issued on July 3, positions nuclear energy as a crucial part of the nation's energy mix but does not spell out specifics as to how that can be achieved. By bringing together the expertise of various players, the government hopes to come up with a new technology that encourages construction and upgrades. 

After the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, all of Japan's reactors were suspended for safety inspections, and only nine, including those operated by Kansai Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power, have restarted since. The government aims to have nuclear power make up 20% to 22% of the energy mix by 2030, a goal that would require having around 30 reactors running.

Japan's large reactors -- some with a capacity of around 1 gigawatt -- require huge investment for construction and safety measures. Along with improving such large facilities, the public-private initiative will consider developing smaller reactors that generate around 100,000 to 300,000 kilowatts. Such reactors would cost several hundred billion yen (100 billion yen currently equals $898 million) to build -- significantly less than the roughly 1 trillion yen price tag for larger models.

High temperature gas-cooled reactors are one option being considered. This type of reactor poses no danger of steam explosions during emergencies, unlike the water-cooled type that composes Japan's stock. Many of Japan's reactors have been running for decades, and new ones would feature new control technology and measures to contain the damage in a crisis.

The economy ministry will recruit the country's big energy providers for the consultation body. Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings andKansai Electricwill consider taking part if invited by the government. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hitachi and other reactor makers will also be asked to join, as will the general contractors that would build the enclosing facilities.

As Japan's nuclear reactors sit idle, decommissioning costs are growing as well. Even if new reactors are commercialized, companies will still bear the burden of dealing with their spent fuel -- a problem some see as too tough for the country's nine big power providers to handle separately.

The economy ministry will also seek to have the public and private sectors work on hydrogen power, high-performance storage batteries, distributed generation and other technologies, aiming to develop a range of options for a stable energy supply to satisfy a public deeply skeptical of nuclear energy safety.

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