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All of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors were shut down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. As the country's energy needs soar, debate is heating up over whether to bring the world’s largest nuclear plant back online.

On today’s episode of The Big Take Asia, host K. Oanh Ha speaks to Bloomberg reporter Shoko Oda about her visit to the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant and the challenges to rebooting it.

Read more: Japan's Energy Stalemate Leaves World's Biggest Nuclear Plant Idle

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Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Oanh Ha: Last winter, on a windy, chilly morning, Bloomberg reporter Shoko Oda arrived in a tiny rural city called Kashiwazaki. It’s on the western coast of Japan, surrounded by mountains and rice fields.

Shoko Oda: And it's about a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo.  And it's known for heavy snow during the winter, so there's a lot of ski resorts. The other thing that it's well known for is really good quality rice so there's a lot of sake brewers that are making sake there as well.

Ha: But Shoko wasn’t there for skiing or sake tasting, she was invited to tour the world’s biggest nuclear power plant, known as “KK.” 

Oda: So KK stands for Kashiwazaki Kariwa, and it's named after the two cities that it straddles over. And it has seven nuclear reactors and it's also the world's biggest nuclear power plant with 8.2 gigawatt capacity. If KK ran smoothly without any problems, at a very conservative maintenance schedule, it would produce enough power for roughly 13 million households in Japan.

Ha: That’s enough to power double the homes in Tokyo. Now KK doesn’t allow electronic devices in its facility, so Shoko couldn’t record anything, but she walked us through her visit.

Oda: You know nuclear power plants are one of the most highly secured places in Japan, lots of checkpoints, they also give you protective gear. And then we went inside the actual reactor unit number seven, where we were taken to an observation deck. And you could kind of see through the glass, the operating floor, where there's a spent nuclear fuel pool, that's where they keep the used fuel.  There's lots of pipes and, and wires. Some places are quite small. You have to kind of walk through nooks and crannies to get to places. You feel like you're getting lost inside a complete maze, like a labyrinth.

Ha: Shoko, what was going through your head as you were walking through this power plant? 

Oda: Well, I mean, it really hits you when you're inside the actual facility itself. Of course, you follow the rules and the protocol but, you know, it makes me wonder sometimes what happens if an earthquake strikes at that point. How will we be getting out of the facility in times like that? So, that's something that crosses my mind whenever I'm at a nuclear power plant.

Ha: Shoko’s worry was once a living nightmare for about 128 million people living in Japan. In 2011, an earthquake hit the east coast of the country and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. That facility is owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, which also owns KK. After Fukushima, Japan suspended operations of all its nuclear reactors. But now, 13 years later, the debate about restarting KK – the world’s largest nuclear power plant – is heating up. 

Oda: I mean Kashiwazaki Kariwa is incredibly symbolic. It's symbolic in a sense that it's the last nuclear power plant operated by Tepco, the company responsible for the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster. And if this one were to be able to restart, I think the Japanese government sees it as a positive thing that boosts sentiment to adopt more nuclear power use. So, I think the government really is looking at it as a critical piece of the puzzle. 

Ha: Welcome to The Big Take Asia from Bloomberg News. I’m Oanh Ha. Every week, we take you inside some of the world's biggest and most powerful economies, and the markets, tycoons and businesses that drive this ever-shifting region. Today on the show – Will the world’s biggest nuclear power plant get a second chance?

Ha: Japan has a relatively long history of developing nuclear power. The country’s first nuclear reactor began operating in 1966.

Oda:  So Japan's always been resource scant. We import a lot of our energy needs from abroad. In the 1970s Japan was impacted by the oil shocks. That was one of the drivers for Japan then to turn to use of nuclear power because they thought that it's important to reduce dependency on imports of energy. So, at one point, Japan had a goal to boost nuclear power use to 50% of its power mix by 2030.

Ha: With that goal, Japan boasted 54 nuclear reactors throughout the country in 2011 – among the most globally – and made nuclear energy a strategic priority. And it worked. At one point, nuclear was about a third of Japan's power mix. Until Fukushima.

Oda: So in March 11, 2011, there was a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of Japan.

BTV Mike Firn: We’ve already seen waves four meters high that’s 13 feet. We saw houses being swept into rice fields there… 

Oda: And this tsunami overwhelmed Tepco's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, and it led to a power loss and failure to cool down the nuclear reactors there. And it caused a meltdown. 

BTV John Brinsley: An evacuation was ordered less than an hour ago for residents that live within about 2 kilometers of a reactor in the prefecture of Fukushima.

Ha: The Fukushima disaster is regarded as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. In the aftermath of Fukushima, Japan suspended operations of all of its 54 nuclear reactors — and permanently scrapped about a third of them.

Oda: Fukushima basically changed everything. The disaster really changed Japan's energy policy. Japan took all of its nuclear power plants offline to check for safety, and they also put in place a new regulatory framework that requires utilities to follow that process before they can bring nuclear reactors back online. 

Ha: Since Fukushima, Japan has restarted 12 nuclear reactors, and five more are waiting to come back online pending additional approvals. That includes two reactors at KK. Shoko spoke with Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He thinks it’s important for Japan to be able to rely on nuclear energy, again. 

Oda: He thought that Japan has all these nuclear reactors sitting idle in the country. All of that capacity that’s wasted, that's sitting there, has potential to lower carbon emissions from coal and gas plants. But it's just, the restart takes such a long time and that it just remains there collecting dust.

Ha: Today, Japan relies almost 70% of its power mix on imported fossil fuel like coal and liquefied natural gas, which makes Japan incredibly vulnerable to the swings in energy prices.

Oda:  So whenever there's a spike in, let's say, an LNG price, Japanese utilities get impacted. Then the same goes for, like, coal. And on top of that, the yen has been at historic weakness against the dollar, which makes it even more expensive for utilities to procure energy from abroad. Just to give a figure, Japan imported like 27 trillion yen of energy last year. That's about 173 billion dollars. 

Ha: 173 billion US dollars. That’s more than what Japan made exporting cars last year. That big energy bill means there’s little room for debate on why Japan needs a new way to power its 4 trillion dollar economy. And Shoko says, the regional wars and conflicts in recent years made this need even more urgent.

Oda: The invasion of Ukraine really had a big impact. After the invasion, you know, commodity prices went flying through the roof and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida explained that in order to achieve energy security, but also achieve climate goals, because nuclear can provide carbon-free energy, the prime minister himself said that Japan should restart as many of its reactors as possible, so long as it's passed the safety protocols, but also look into developing next-generation reactors and trying to harness that technology more.

Ha: There are other reasons why Japan wants to harness nuclear power more. For one, it wants to attract more semiconductor manufacturers like TSMC to make chips in Japan, and that’s expected to increase electricity demand significantly. Plus, there’s also a move to revive nuclear power around the world.

Oda:  China has plans to roll out more nuclear power plants. There are talks in the U.S. to try to bring some back online. Even developing countries are looking at nuclear power, including Bangladesh, India. So it's really not just Japan, but, um, every other country is looking at atomic energy as a way to secure energy. Ha: This year, Japan started a review of its national energy strategy to set a target for the country’s power mix in the future. The current strategy says Japan will aim for nuclear to be up to 22% of its power mix by the end of the decade. In fiscal 2022, nuclear accounted for just 5% of the energy mix. And next month, lawmakers in Niigata, the prefecture where KK is based, will meet and likely consider whether to support a restart. 

Oda: I spoke with some of these lawmakers and they're very wary about restarting KK and many have said that it's not the right time to be even discussing whether KK should be restarted or not.

Ha: After the break, what it takes to restart a nuclear reactor and the challenges ahead.

Ha: Shoko, earlier, we talked about how Japan wants to restart the world’s biggest nuclear power plant to tackle soaring energy costs. How do you even go about doing that? I mean, obviously, it’s not like restarting a computer, you’re not just flipping a switch.

Oda: Yeah. It's an incredibly complicated and long-winded process. So, basically Japanese utilities have to submit a plan to the nation's regulator and that's submitted to the nuclear regulation authority and they check whether it matches the new framework that came into place after the Fukushima disaster. Once that's approved, it goes back to the utility to conduct the necessary safety construction work at the power plant. And then on top of that, they also have to gain the blessing of the local governor of the town that the nuclear power plant’s in.

Ha: And that blessing from the local governor? It’s not even a legal requirement. Technically, idled reactors just need regulators’ approval to restart. Companies like Tepco typically seek consent from the local governor and assembly, but citizen lawsuits or protests can slow that down. For KK, two of its seven reactors have passed the required safety protocols. But Shoko says local lawmakers and residents in Niigata, where KK is located, don’t seem excited about restarting a nuclear plant in their backyard.

Oda:  And the reason for that is, Japan saw another earthquake on January 1. And it happened to take place somewhere close to Niigata. It shook quite a lot in Niigata. The lawmakers themselves said that they saw a lot of people trying to evacuate, and the roads were getting congested because everyone's trying to evacuate all at once. All of this gets compounded. And so they don't think the evacuation plan put in place is adequate enough. They don't think the road infrastructure is strong enough. And so I could really feel the temperature difference between, you know, the national government that's been very proactive in trying to promote nuclear energy versus the actual local government that's actually dealing with the risk of a potential disaster.

Ha: And even if all these safety concerns are addressed, the residents in Niigata don’t actually have much to gain from restarting KK.

Oda: Tokyo Electric operates KK. That means if Tokyo Electric were able to cut back on fossil fuel imports and lower power bills, all of that benefit goes to people like me living in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. Niigata is actually covered by a different utility, and so they don't get the benefit of, let's say, a lower power bill. All they get is just the risks. 

Ha:  A BloombergNEF report forecasts that Tepco could resume operations at KK’s No. 7 reactor as soon as October. For now, there’s no official target date. And for many Japanese today, the memory and trauma of Fukushima still loom large. 

Oda: Obviously, Japan is one of the most seismically active places in the world. You know, every single time there's an earthquake, I, as an energy reporter, the first thing that comes to my mind is what's the closest nuclear power plant to where the earthquake took place. And so it's, it's the key sticking point for people when they debate whether nuclear is safe or good or not. The trade minister once said that it takes years and years to gain trust and it only takes a second to lose that trust. That was his line to Tepco to make sure that they know that attention is on them and, and make sure that they need to do everything they can to gain that trust back from the public.

Ha: Shoko, despite the trauma of Fukushima, it seems that the reality and needs on the ground are making people think differently about nuclear energy. 

Oda: Yeah, I think, I mean it was a very traumatizing event for the country, but at the same time, it's been 13 years. And public sentiment toward nuclear in Japan has shifted, um, especially with the invasion of Ukraine and power bills going up, people started to kind of warm up to the idea of nuclear power because if that means lowering fuel imports and lowering power bills, then, you know, why not?

(Adds transcript)

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