In questioning its own reliance on nuclear power while endorsing its nuclear export efforts, Japan, with 54 seaside reactors ringing the country, finds itself pulled by contradictory claims. A majority of Japanese say nuclear power is no longer safe. But the government says the nation’s technology remains the world’s safest — or at least it will be, as the country studies the Fukushima disaster, in which three meltdowns forced the displacement of about 100,000 residents last spring.
The government’s stance also reinforces the powerful role of industrial heavyweights, particularly Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, whose technology can add billions to a sputtering economy. Though Japan has yet to conclude its official investigation into the Fukushima accident — a probe that will lead to new safety guidelines — those conglomerates are racing to finalize deals by highlighting the safety changes they’ve already made.
Only Toshiba and Hitachi had a hand in building the Fukushima reactors, but for all three manufacturers, the recent months have served as a gauge for global confidence in Japanese technology. Hitachi executives say they lost several deals in the wake of Fukushima. And Toshiba — along with its partner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — pulled out of the bidding for a deal in Turkey.
But the nuclear technology companies think that the setback will be modest, at most. Before the March 11 disaster, Hitachi had outlined a plan to construct 38 overseas plants by 2030. Because of the nuclear crisis, Hitachi nuclear power systems chief executive Masaharu Hanyu said, “we are now thinking that target might be a little bit delayed.” But the company has not formally lowered its target.
The Japanese companies have found that much of the world still wants nuclear power. Although Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear plants by 2022, and Italy recently voted against the construction of new reactors, Asian and Middle Eastern countries still have plans for major nuclear projects. China alone has about 25 reactors under construction.
“I really don’t think Fukushima poses a threat to our negotiations,” Hanyu said. “In terms of energy security and mitigating carbon emissions, there is still major demand.”
Within weeks of the crisis at Fukushima, Hitachi sent its executives across the globe to issue reassurances about pending deals. Hitachi in particular targeted Lithuania, which closed its last Soviet-style nuclear reactor in 2009. Since then, the country has been forced to import most of its power, and electricity prices have risen. Its government wanted a new 1,300-megawatt reactor, more powerful than the older model at Fukushima Daiichi but on par with modern standards.
Hanyu flew to Lithuania in June. He and other company officials talked about new safety measures, including changes in the backup power system. One month later, the Lithuanian government signed an agreement with Hitachi, which had partnered with U.S.-based General Electric.
“The Lithuanian negotiations were really important to us,” Hanyu said. “We wanted them to know that we are indeed learning from Fukushima Daiichi. If they had been wary, they would not have picked us.”
Domestically, Japan hasn’t decided whether it will cancel all plans for new nuclear power plants or merely curb its ambitions. Before the Fukushima accident, Japan planned to build 14 new reactors by 2030, with nuclear power accounting for half of the country’s electricity. But public sentiment has turned against nuclear power, and the previous prime minister, Naoto Kan, who left office more than two months ago, favored a phaseout of reactors. He also showed little support for nuclear export efforts.
Noda’s support for nuclear exports comes, in part, from a desire to maintain influence; nuclear nations have more authority in global nonproliferation talks. Exporting also gives the companies a major reason to maintain their technology, rather than letting it become outdated.
“We have to keep up with having modern blueprints for nuclear plants,” said Shigero Masamori, general manager of nuclear energy systems for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Mitsubishi is seeking to build reactors in Jordan, Sweden and Finland. It also has an agreement to construct an advanced pressurized water reactor at the North Anna plant in Virginia, located about 12 miles from the epicenter of the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Aug. 23. The permit for the new Unit 3 reactor requires an earthquake resistance four times the standard for existing units. The construction license is under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Masamori said no changes will be needed in Mitsubishi’s blueprint for the U.S. reactor. “When we applied for the design certification,” he said, “we assumed an earthquake far larger than that one.”
Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.