On January 9, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi announced plans to strengthen bilateral cooperation on developing next-generation nuclear reactors. This announcement builds on continued cooperative efforts between the two countries in the advanced reactors space.

Joint Statement on Advanced Reactors

The U.S.-Japan joint statement was issued as part of a wide-ranging meeting between Secretary Granholm and Minister Nishimura, which covered the situation surrounding global energy security and the importance of clean energy transitions, including nuclear, renewables, energy efficiency, geothermal, and the production and use of hydrogen and ammonia.

The energy impacts from Russia’s war in Ukraine were at the forefront of the meetings, with the U.S. and Japan emphasizing the need for bilateral solutions to create diverse and secure energy supplies, including upstream investment in the United States to bolster energy security.

Both countries intend to grow cooperation opportunities in the civil nuclear energy space, including the development and construction of advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), both domestically and in other countries. Both also intend to build “robust nuclear component and fuel supply-chains” that includes the development of uranium fuel, “among like-minded countries.”

Secretary Granholm and Minister Nishimura also reiterated the importance and progress of the Japan-U.S. Clean Energy and Energy Security Initiative (CEESI), which was established in May 2022 between the two nations to facilitate energy-related dialogue between the partner nations at the ministerial level. CEESI has already engaged in knowledge sharing on civil nuclear energy matters, with a bilateral task force for nuclear power also created through CEESI in May 2022.

In addition to CEESI, the U.S. and Japan have engaged in other avenues of cooperation on new nuclear power matters, for example with the Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) program, which was announced in August 2022 as part of the 2020 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Under the FIRST program, the U.S. and Japan, along with Estonia, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Latvia, the Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom, agreed to work collaboratively to “facilitate the safe and secure utilization of civilian nuclear reactors, especially SMRs.” The FIRST program announcement stated that “nuclear energy not only provides clean energy supply, but also supports local job growth, energy security, air pollution and carbon reduction goals, and global clean technology innovation.”

Additionally, the U.S. and Japan had previously announced in November 2018 a Memorandum of Cooperation for research and development in the nuclear space, specifically regarding “(1) nuclear research and development, including innovative reactors, (2) decommissioning and back-end fuel cycle management, (3) industrial cooperation for safety improvement, and (4) expansion of the global use of nuclear energy.”

Japan’s Changing Nuclear Policy

The January 9 joint statement comes during a revitalization of the Japanese civil nuclear industry. In the statement, the Department of Energy (DOE) noted the significance of Japan’s “Draft Future Nuclear Energy Direction and Action Guidelines” (the Guidelines), announced in December 2022. The Guidelines are part of a plan to extend the operation of existing Japanese nuclear reactors – restarting as many as possible and prolonging the operating lives of others beyond the current 60-year limit. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced a draft rule that would permit it to evaluate the deterioration levels and safety concerns for reactors that have operated for at least 30 years, and under the proposed rule, the time that reactors have been taken offline for inspections would be excluded from a tally of the reactor’s service life, permitting extensions beyond 60 total operating years for reactors in certain cases. Under the draft rule, operators must create a long-term reactor management plan and receive regulatory approval from the NRA every 10 years for continued operation after 30 years.

As a point of comparison, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), through its subsequent license renewal (SLR) process, allows for an extension of operating licenses to a total of 80 years (20 years beyond the 60 years permitted after the first license renewal process). For more information regarding the SLR process in the U.S., see our post from March 2022, “NRC ordered new environmental reviews for subsequent license renewals—reversing approved extensions”.

Japan’s Guidelines also feature a plan to develop and construct next-generation advanced nuclear reactors to replace at least 20 aging reactors that require decommissioning. The Guidelines more generally trumpet the use of nuclear power, describing it as “a power source that contributes to energy security and has a high decarbonisation effect” and is necessary to achieve Japan’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The January 9 joint statement and the Guidelines demonstrate the Japanese government’s efforts to reprioritize nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. Before Fukushima, around 30 percent of Japan’s electricity supply was provided by nuclear reactors, but after the accident, massive regulatory changes were created, requiring plants to meet revised regulatory safety standards and pass inspections before they could resume operation. So far, only 10 of Japan’s 39 operable reactors have resumed operations, with another 17 reactors at various stages in the process of gaining approval to restart, with the plan to restart them by this summer.

Japan faces unique energy needs. While it has the third largest economy in the world, it needs to import 90% of its power. Japan also faces a tight power supply, with power shortages that began last March after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are expected to continue through 2023.

Russia’s War in Ukraine

This U.S.-Japan joint statement comes amidst a flurry of advanced reactor developments brought on by energy security considerations from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The resulting energy crises around the world in the Spring and Summer galvanized an increased demand for clean power. We have written about these issues previously in a July 2022 blog post, “Decarbonization and energy security spur increased interest in New Nuclear-summary of recent developments.”