Japanese fulfilling the promise of nuclear power

Steven E. Kuehn

Power Generation Editor

Japan, as any wizened traveler will tell you, is a study in contrasts, alternately beautiful and ugly. This notion was confirmed for me personally during my visit to the country at the end of April. My experience, the culmination of a life-long goal to visit the country, was mostly positive, with little, except my perfect expectations, tarnished as I visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Kashiwazaki on the Sea of Japan. One experience, however, did live up to, and actually surpassed, my expectations. That was my visit to Tokyo Electric Power Co.`s (TEPCO) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant site near the city of Kashiwazaki.

Comprised of seven boiling-water reactor units, two of which are currently under construction, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa physically embodies the dreams early nuclear-energy pioneers had for the future of the atom as a power source. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is truly awe-inspiring. From the main gate to the deepest levels of the units under construction, everything, and I mean everything, about the plant is in harmony with its intended purpose. The operating units are spotless and positively hum with quiet air of power that defies a description in words.

TEPCO, confident and self-assured of the safety and necessity of nuclear power permits relatively open public access to the units and provides viewing galleries for people to witness firsthand what nuclear power is all about. A no-expense-spared visitor`s center further reinforces TEPCO`s vision through a multimedia extravaganza that both instructs and entertains those who visit the site. From first impression to last, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa must be the finest nuclear power facility in the world.

Promise kept

The Japanese are truly fulfilling the promise of nuclear power: that of a clean, abundant, sustainable source of energy, independent from (ultimately) limited fossil resources. For example, Japan has increased its share of nuclear power from 5 percent to 30 percent in the last 20 years. At present, the country produces approximately 37 GW of electricity from 44 commercial reactors. The Japanese are also the first to construct advanced-design boiling-water reactors (see page 27: “Aggressive schedule keeps Kashiwazaki-Kariwa contractors on their toes”) and continue their efforts to close the fuel cycle as witnessed by the initial operation of the Monju fast reactor. Japan also knows how to run nuclear power plants. In 1993, Japan`s national average capacity factor was 99.9 percent, and three of its units were among the top-five performing units worldwide.

Japan`s nuclear program is planned to expand well into the next century, and several units are currently under construction. Given the island nation`s circumstances, nuclear power seems to be the right choice for their energy future. To be fair, though, not everyone in Japan agrees with this policy, and a number of groups continue to actively oppose the siting and construction of new units. Yet, the program has the momentum and general public support needed to sustain the option in Japan, and they obviously know how to do it right.