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Thousands work daily at Japan nuclear plants that sell no power

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 09:33
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More than 6,000 workers cycle through the world's biggest nuclear plant every day to operate and maintain a facility that hasn't sold a kilowatt of electricity in more than four years.

[TOKYO] More than 6,000 workers cycle through the world's biggest nuclear plant every day to operate and maintain a facility that hasn't sold a kilowatt of electricity in more than four years.

The buzz at Tokyo Electric Power Co Holdings Inc's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant plays out daily across Japan, where utilities employ thousands of workers and spend billions of dollars awaiting the green light to restart commercial operations.

With only three of the country's 42 operable reactors running, they're betting a national government committed to nuclear power will win over local officials and a wary public who don't believe enough has been done to guarantee safety since the worst meltdown since Chernobyl.

"Even though operating expenses of non-generating reactors remain high, utilities would prefer to keep them open while there is any chance they can restart," said James Taverner, a Tokyo-based analyst at IHS Markit Ltd.

"Utilities have already committed significant expenditure for plants to meet new safety standards, and decommissioning costs are considerable."

The nine biggest regional utilities spent more than 1.5 trillion yen (S$20 billion) on their nuclear plants during the year to March, according to Bloomberg calculations based on the latest earnings reports.

Over that same period, those plants accounted for just 1.1 per cent of the nation's electricity.

Nuclear-related costs accounted for 9 per cent of all operating expenses at the utilities in the previous fiscal year, according to the calculations. That includes personnel and maintenance, as well as waste disposal and contributions to the nation's nuclear damage compensation system.

The burden of paying for nuclear facilities producing little electricity has been softened by price declines in recent years for coal, natural gas and oil, which are also used as fuels for power generation. Tepco sees itself swinging to a net loss as fossil fuel prices recover, making the restart of Kashiwazaki-Kariwakey to profitability, Naomi Hirose, the company's president, said in an interview earlier this year.

Costs for operating the country's nuclear facilities were slightly higher before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, at about 1.7 trillion yen a year, when atomic energy accounted for nearly 30 per cent of Japan's electricity mix.

Tokyo Electric, also known as Tepco, estimates that restarting one of the newest reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa - known as KK - would boost net income by as much as 10 billion yen a month.

The plant, the world's biggest by generating capacity, has seven reactors at a facility spread across more than 1,000 acres and located about 217 kilometres northwest of Tokyo in the prefecture of Niigata.

Workers clad in jumpsuits and loaded down with manuals convene daily in a mock-up of the reactor control room, preparing for the restart of the plant under new safety guidelines imposed after the Fukushima meltdown.

"Everyday, this room is full of workers, from fresh employees to old veterans, sharpening their skills," Noboyuki Suzuki, a deputy manager in the company's human resources development group, said at the KK plant last month. "Operators at this facility are required to go through training here on a regular schedule."

About three-fourths of the Tepco employees and contract workers at the plant are from the prefecture housing the facility, making it one of the area's biggest economic drivers.

The reactor is an economic windfall for the region, employing thousands of local workers and supporting restaurants, shops and even taxi companies, according to Kariwa village official Masayoshi Oota. "If the reactor were to disappear, then so would the economic benefit," he said.

Japan's nuclear energy industry employs more than 80,000 engineers, construction workers and operators, according to a report published by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry last year.

To boost confidence in its facility's safety, Tokyo-based Tepco has spent 470 billion yen on flood barriers, a 15-metre seawall and a reservoir the size of 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools to supply water in the event a reactor pump fails.

KK's restart is far from assured. The plant was forced to shut for 21 months following an earthquake in July 2007. Though some units eventually restarted, all were shuttered again after the March 2011 Fukushima accident for safety checks.

There is skepticism among the Japanese public. The restart of nuclear reactors is opposed by 53 per cent of Japanese and supported by just 30 per cent, according to a nationwide poll conducted earlier this year by the Mainichi newspaper.

Should the plant clear the necessary regulatory, legal and political hurdles and resume operations, Tepco plans to maintain the facility's workforce at current levels, a reflection of how many workers are needed even during a period called cold- shutdown.

"Right now we are focused on the nation's regulatory review of the plant," said Chikashi Shitara, facility chief at KK.

"Even though the plant isn't running, there is still a lot we must do."

BLOOMBERG