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Japan prepares to revive nuclear generation

09 May 2013

After new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a landslide victory in last December’s Lower House election, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has methodically set about reversing the ousted Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration’s policy of abandoning atomic power.

In Japan, only two reactors at Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant near Takahama are currently operational
In Japan, only two reactors at Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant near Takahama are currently operational

The DPJ had endorsed the elimination of nuclear power by the 2030s in response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Around 160,000 people were evacuated because of radioactive fallout.

The disaster led to the shutdown of the country's entire nuclear power industry, which was producing 30% of the country's electricity supply at the time. Since then, only two reactors, at Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant near Takahama, have resumed operation.

But Abe has said that the revival of nuclear generation in Japan will be a key element in his plans to revive the country’s stagnant economy.

Abe's push for more aggressive fiscal and monetary policy since he won his election victory has added to the fuel bill by driving down the value of the yen.

Japan, the most energy-import dependent of the world's major economies, spent about 24 trillion yen ($250 billion) in 2012 on fuel imports including for electricity generation, based on the official average yen rate of 79.55 to dollar, finance ministry figures showed.

That made up a third of Japan's total imports bill and contributed greatly to a record trade deficit of 6.9 trillion yen.

Energy imports are likely to rise further when Japan shuts down the two functional Ohi nuclear plants for maintenance, which has to take place by September.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, Kansai Electric Power Co, Kyushu Electric Power Co, Shikoku Electric Power Co and Tohoku Electric Power Co have suggested restarting 11 reactors by the end of March 2014, although this is ambitious given the regulator's more cautious view.

The independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, set up after the disaster to replace the previous regulatory body which was perceived to have been toothless and too close to the nuclear industry, has signalled it could take as long as three years to approve restarts under safety guidelines it is drawing up. 

The latest stage of Abe’s campaign took place in mid-March, when most of the anti-nuclear researchers appointed to a post-Fukushima energy policy board advising the government were fired, to be replaced by pro-nuclear figures from industry and academia.

Six of the eight members who voted to phase out nuclear power while advising the DPJ have been dropped from the panel. Another 10 were re-appointed, including Akio Mimura, an adviser to Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. Mimura, now chairman of the panel, who once headed an energy advisory board under a previous LDP government that promoted nuclear power.

The government has added five new people, including Issei Nishikawa, governor of Fukui Prefecture, which has 14 reactors, and Hajimu Yamana, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University. Overall, the number of advisory board members was cut to 15 from 25.

One argument the administration will use is the environmental impact of keeping the reactors closed. The big five utilities are forecasting a 50% increase in coal use in the year to March 31, 2014, while their LNG use is expected to decline 9.4%.

Three options were considered for the country’s future nuclear energy supply: zero, 15%, and up to 25% of the total electricity generated annually. A government poll last August found 47% of citizens favoured the zero option, with the remainder were split between the other two alternatives.

On the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered the accident, opposition to the nuclear option is more muted. Last July about 170,000 people attended an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to demand that Japan scrap nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. This year, demonstrations were much smaller. Ongoing weekly protests reach 5,000, with some events drawing only a few hundred protesters.

As a practical matter, no government, regardless of its politics, has much choice on nuclear power in the short term. The DJP envisaged reopening some of the nuclear plants until the energy they generated could be replaced from other sources.

The LDP, however, wants nuclear to continue to supply a significant share of Japan’s energy over the long term. It won a landslide in the lower house last December on its promise to “build a strong and prosperous Japan”—a vow that appealed to voters tired of the nation’s economic weakness and instability. 

For now, the government is moving cautiously on reopening the nuclear plants, held in check in part by the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority. 

But if Abe and his party win the upper house in July as well, the country could well see large-scale nuclear generation revived relatively over a relatively short period.




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