[Viewpoiont] Japan’s farsighted atomic policy

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[Viewpoiont] Japan’s farsighted atomic policy

Fukui Prefecture in midwestern Japan is a mountainous region with a small population of 810,000.

However, the prefecture is well known as the biggest supplier of electricity in Japan. There are 54 nuclear power plants in Japan, and nearly 30 percent - or 15 plants - are located in the prefecture.

The plants generate 25 percent of the annual nuclear power production of the country. Those nuclear power plants in Fukui supply half of the electric power to the Kansai region, where major cities like Osaka, Kyoto and Nara are located.

In any country, a nuclear power plant is a common target of those with a “nimby,” or “not in my backyard,” mind-set.

Japanese are especially allergic to nuclear energy, having been bombed and exposed to radiation during World War II in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nevertheless, Fukui Prefecture embraced the nuclear power industry and became a rich town in the mountainous area.

As the region emerged as the center of nuclear energy research and development, nuclear power providers and research institutes moved there, and today more than 20,000 people are employed by these nuclear-related businesses and institutes.

As a result, the nuclear power plant-related tax revenue of the prefecture, including the nuclear fuel tax, amounts to 100 billion yen (1.2 trillion won, $1.1 billion), making up 11 percent of its total tax revenue.

Fukui Prefecture has become a showcase for nuclear power plants, as different models of the light-water reactor, which is internationally commercialized, and the fast breeder reactor, the next-generation model, were installed there.

While the region has ambitiously welcomed nuclear reactors, they have also experienced a nuclear-related accident. In 1995, coolant - which plays the role of offsetting the heat emitted from a fast breeder reactor - leaked out during a trial run.

But Fukui Prefecture was able to turn that painful experience into an opportunity to provide training to people for the operation of nuclear power plants. Since 2005, Fukui Prefecture has offered diverse training programs, and 1,300 people complete the courses every year.

The fast breeder reactor that suffered the leak is scheduled to restart in 2010 after a 15-year hiatus.

Japan is now encouraging the development of fast breeder reactors in order to secure a solid energy source for future generations.

Just like fossil fuel, the uranium used for nuclear-power generation will dry up soon.

The confirmed reserve of 5.47 million tons of uranium is expected to run out in 100 years at the current rate of consumption.

So Japan has made it a national project to develop a fast breeder reactor model that is more efficient in generating energy from uranium. If Japan succeeds in the effort, it could extend uranium use for about 3,000 years.

Japan also set a goal to jump-start commercial operations of a fast breeder reactor before rivals such as the United States, Russia, France and China.

According to its timeline, final design elements will be hammered out by 2015, and development of the reactor is to be completed by 2025. Under the plan, power generation from the new reactor will commence in 2050.

Japan’s ambitious effort was boosted by collaboration with Bill Gates, founder and chairman of U.S. software giant Microsoft. The software tycoon, who is highly interested in eco-friendly power generation, has teamed up with electronics giant Toshiba, which has been working to develop a commercial fast breed reactor, to build a brand new nuclear reactor that does not need uranium replacement for as long as 100 years.

After a series of failed attempts to export nuclear power plants recently, Japan is in a state of great shock.

However, Tokyo is seeking to turn the tide in one fell swoop if it succeeds in developing the next-generation fast breeder reactor model.

The country’s determination in this area reminds us of figure skater Mao Asada’s challenge to Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-na. Japan is aiming to export the new model by enhancing efficiency and lowering the price.

Korea should no longer be celebrating its winning bid to build a nuclear facility in the United Arab Emirates. We need to closely look at Japan’s struggle and efforts to ensure a future in this industry.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Dong-ho
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