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Expert says Japan’s nuclear decommissioning relevant for China’s future

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According to an expert on the Chinese nuclear energy market, the lessons of Japan's decommissioning wave will bear consequences on how China will deal with its own nuclear challenge down the line.

After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in early 2011, Japan closed its nuclear power plants before reluctantly opening them again. Now, decommissioning has moved into the crosshairs of politics. However, companies might be more prepared than politicians think. An expert on Japan told E&T that utility companies are well aware of the cost burden and are already preparing for the point at which their reactors will reach their expiry dates.

As Japan battles with a wave of decommissioning that could cost billions of dollars, experts revealed to E&T that they are deeply concerned that the country will be build enough new reactors in time. This could become a problem as the nation's ambition is set on reaching a 20 per cent nuclear energy generation target by 2030. With an increasing rate of decommissioning and nuclear power accounting for a diminishing share of the energy grid (3 per cent in 2017), it will be harder to be successful in this regard, say sources familiar with the matter.

According to a representative of the World Nuclear Association spokesperson, some reactors in Japan are being decommissioned earlier than might have been initially planned, E&T was told. 19 have been shut down since the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Utility companies are confirmed to have been told from the start of the spiralling costs of decommissioning. Decommissioning is also not new to Japanese companies: in 1976, Japan's first reactor was reported to shut down.

"Decommissioning is a word that frightens a lot of people in Japan, even though there is nothing scary about it. It is just deconstruction", according to François Morin, a director of the World Nuclear Association operation in China.

"Decommissioning is as complex as building the plant itself. It is 90 per cent steel. Then there is the radiation part, there you have specific tools and some caution has to be taken into consideration. The radiation part is extremely tiny. People may be afraid in Japan that opening the box means leaving the radiation out. That is not true", he said.

Important lessons learned from Japan's decommissioning programme will also emerge in other Asian countries. China in particular is expected to be the party most interested in learning how to handle decommissioning, as nuclear power grows in relevance there, Morin said. 

Although not interlinked by any direct means of technology transfer, Japan's decision to take decommissioning seriously may impact Chinese strategies in the future, he predicts. "During a 2018 symposium, actors in China were not concerned about decommissioning. This year, they started to raise the subject", he said. 

China is just now embarking on a building spree of nuclear reactors across the country after a period of caution in 2017 and 2018, he explained. It is on its way to becoming a global leader in nuclear power generation: "Today, China is third in the nuclear power game and has passed Japan, but only because many Japanese plants were stopped and were not restated, yet. But if you would remove the event of the Fukushima [Daiichi nuclear disaster], there are more Japanese reactors than there are in China".

One reason is that China is speeding up the pace of building reactors. China is expected to build six to eight new plants per year, he said. "In 20 years' time, China will have no problem to surpass Japan in real terms, as well as Germany, France and even the US", he said. 

Decommissioning is not yet a major problem in China, but other experts are starting to pay more attention. "In China, the oldest plant is 25 years old. They still have 40 to 60 years ahead before thinking about decommissioning. But they do think about the decommissioning market. If you see that people are saying that it costs one billion to decommission a plant, there is clearly an appeal to make money", he explained. 

Despite the ongoing cool relationship between Japan and China in many areas, exchanges between China and Japan with regard to nuclear power do occur. "There are many delegations that go to Japan, such as to Fukushima. There are Japanese professors speaking in China", he said.  

Japanese companies have never built a plant in China, he said, although some elements in the reactor supply chain are delivered by Japan. In terms of decommissioning, China will keep a close eye on how Japan deals with the issue of decommissioning, he explained. 

E&T was told that there are more than 180 nuclear power reactors around the world that were shut down over the past 60 years. "Those 180 reactors are at various stages of planned decommissioning and this is part of the expected lifecycle of a nuclear reactor", said a spokesperson from the World Nuclear Association.

At present, there would be 445 reactors 'operable' around the world. Reactors built today are expected to operate for a minimum of 60 years. Many reactors in operation today are looking at operating timeframes of 80 years, but eventually, all of them face decommissioning.

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