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News Extra: Japan could resume nuclear generation in June

01 June 2015

On April 22, a court in Japan rejected an attempt by local residents to halt the restart of two nuclear reactors at the Sendai plant in Kagoshima prefecture, southwestern  Japan. This means the reactors could be operational again as soon as June.

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Kyushu Electric's Sendai Units 1 and 2 received approval to restart from Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) in November 2014. The NRA also approved Kansai Electric's Takahama Units 3 and 4 at the end of 2014, but a court in Takahama ruled in favour of residents and has blocked any restart there.

All of Japan's 48 nuclear reactors were taken offline after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Before the accident, caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami, nuclear power contributed 27% of Japan's electricity generation in 2010.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has lobbied strongly for a restart, arguing that the shutdown has hurt the economy by forcing Japan to import expensive fossil fuels to make up the power shortfall. Despite this, public opposition to nuclear power across Japan is extensive, with opinion polls showing a consistent  majority against nuclear generation in the country.

The governor of Japan's Kagoshima prefecture and local authorities in the town of Satsumasendai have already given their approval for the restart of Units 1 and 2 at Sendai. A local residents group had argued that Kyushu Electric was underestimating the threat posed by nearby volcanoes and did not have adequate evacuation plans in place.

The decision by the Kagoshima District Court to reject the objection means the reactors could be operational again by June. This ruling came a week after residents in the western city of Takahama were successful in their attempt to block a restart.

The court there agreed with nine local residents who argued that Kansai Electric was being overly optimistic in assuming that no major quake would hit the region.

The Fukui District Court court accused the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) safety standards of "lacking rationality". Takahama Units 3 and 4 cannot be restarted unless Kansai Electric can overturn this injunction.

Shinichi Tanaka, the head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), said the body would continue to vet the Takahama reactors.

"I do not feel that we need to immediately change our regulatory standards or the content of the vetting process at this time," said Tanaka, adding that Japan's nuclear regulatory standards were among the strictest in the world.

Following the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power plants that were not immediately damaged were gradually shut down as scheduled maintenance took place. Two nuclear reactors, Kansai Electric's Ohi Units 3 and 4, were restarted in July 2012 and ran until September 2013, when they were shut down again for maintenance.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), prior to 2011, Japan ranked as the third-largest nuclear power generator in the world behind the United States and France. Liquified natural gas (LNG), coal and oil made up about 30%, 24% and 7% of Japan's electricity mix, respectively, in 2010. Renewable energy represented about 11%, mostly from hydroelectric generators.

After Fukushima, Japan's utilities initially substituted the lost nuclear generation with LNG, heavy fuel oil, crude oil, and coal. Japanese utilities have proposed building several additional LNG- and coal-fired power plants to replace power plants reaching the end of their operational lives.

Japan spent 60% more for fossil fuel imports in 2013 compared to 2010, an increase of $270 billion over three years. This reversed Japan's trade surplus and created a widening trade deficit. Utilities have passed on some of the high cost for power production to consumers, and electricity prices have risen at least 20%, according to the EIA.

The industry ministry said in April that Japan should aim to make nuclear energy account for between 20 and 22% of the country's electricity mix by 2030, with renewables at 22 to 24%, LNG at 27% and coal at 26%.

Some industry observers are sceptical about the nuclear figure, as, even ignoring the lack of public support, many of the country’s nuclear reactors will have reached their lifetime limit of 40 years before 2030, unless they get special exemptions.

A figure of around 15% seems more likely, if the industry can persuade the courts their reactors are safe to restart.

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