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Hitachi's UK nuke project halt leaves question of how to keep tech expertise

Hitachi Ltd. President Toshiaki Higashihara speaks during a press conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- Hitachi Ltd.'s suspension of a plan to build two nuclear reactors in central Britain is forcing the Japanese electronics giant to drastically review its nuclear power business strategy.

"For the coming years, we will focus on domestic projects," Hitachi President Toshiaki Higashihara told a press conference on Jan. 17, where he announced the suspension of the British project. The president made it clear that the company will "not accelerate" construction of nuclear plants abroad, meaning its atomic technology export strategy is back at square one.

At home, meanwhile, there remains no prospect of building new nuclear plants amid public wariness of atomic power in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hitachi therefore is planning to make reactor restarts, maintenance and management, and decommissioning the pillars of its nuclear power business, for which the firm needs to maintain relevant human and technological resources.

Part of the motivation behind the big push by the Japanese government and manufacturers to export and build nuclear power stations overseas is the desire to retain expert personnel. However, with the halt to the U.K. project, there are now zero nuclear plants being built by Japanese firms either at home or abroad.

"Human resources for the design and construction (of nuclear plants) will be in short supply," lamented Hitachi's Higashihara.

While the government considers nuclear power a base-load energy source, a loss of expertise in the field would imperil not only nuclear plant construction in the future but also imminent work to ensure the safety of existing facilities, or to dismantle them.

"We must join hands with other (domestic) manufacturers to discuss how to secure personnel," Higashihara stated.

With the public keeping a wary eye on nuclear power, Higashihara suggested that the issue needs a broad national discussion, including energy security and environmental issues. "We are facing a situation where people cannot voice positive opinions about nuclear power," he said.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pitched Japan's nuclear power technology to foreign countries as part of its growth strategy. However, this has hit a snag after snowballing costs for safety measures forced a series of reviews of those projects in partner countries.

Hitachi's U.K. project fiasco has left the company with a loss of some 300 billion yen. Toshiba Corp. also incurred more than 1 trillion yen in losses after the failure of its U.S. nuclear unit. Hitachi's Higashihara stated that the firm "has reached its limits as a private company" in reference to the British project's suspension, leading to questions about the government's reliance on the private sector to advance Japan's nuclear power business.

While expectations are high for global demand for next-generation reactors, such as small, low-cost modular reactors, the government is again counting on the private sector for such projects.

Hitachi aims to jointly develop small modular reactors with a U.S. firm, but Higashihara said they are still "in the development plan discussion stage," indicating there is still no estimate for when such reactors can be commercialized.

(Japanese original by Ryo Yanagisawa, Shiho Fujibuchi and Takayuki Hakamada, Business News Department)

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