Japan is facing an electricity crunch this summer, potentially so severe, that companies such as Komatsu, the world’s No. 2 maker of construction machinery, have said they will move factories overseas if electricity supply isn’t guaranteed.
Bloomberg reports that all but one of Japan’s 54 reactors are now offline after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami last year crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station. The reactors, which previously supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, have either been closed by the disaster, by government order or not allowed to restart after regular maintenance shutdowns. The remaining one reactor is due to close on May 5 for maintenance.
“Did You Pay the Gas Bill?”
As a result, Japan’s fuel import bill has sky rocketed. Liquefied natural gas imports rose to a record in 2011 as utilities have been forced to rely on fossil fuel power plants to replace idled reactors. Japan imported 1.75 million kilolitres of oil, or about 369,000 barrels a day, for power generation in February, more than four times as much as a year ago, according to data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in a separate article, while imports for power generation were up 15 percent from January alone.
There seems to be a government-led imperative to get some of these nuclear plants back online as Kansai Electric, the utility most dependent on nuclear at 49 percent of generating capacity, warns it may fall nearly 20 percent short this summer. The company serves the Kansai area of western Japan that covers an area the size of Belgium, has an economy worth $1 trillion — about the size of Mexico’s — and is home to the cities of Osaka and Kyoto as well as factories of Sharp Corp. and Panasonic Corp., Bloomberg reports.
Bring Back Nuclear, They Say
Although much controversy remains, even some local politicians and the general public appear to be favouring re-starts as employment suffers in areas where plants dominate the local economies. Overseas reaction to nuclear energy post-Fukushima, however, vary. Germany still plans to close all its plants by 2020, and even in France questions are being asked about expansion to what is one of the world’s most comprehensive nuclear generating networks.
But emerging markets are still showing enthusiasm for nuclear power as a secure provider of low greenhouse gas-emitting base-load electricity.
In Turkey, China is said to be close to securing a contract to finance and build a plant on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, in spite of the Chinese touting older technology. China is developing newer technologies off its own back as it is prevented from poaching the technologies of Westinghouse and Areva, who are constructing plants for the Chinese in what is currently the world’s largest nuclear construction program — but don’t be surprised if the Chinese “discover” very similar solutions to the technical challenges solved by Western firms.
Meanwhile, Turkey already has another plant planned with a Russian manufacturer, and Russia’s Rosatom is said to be keen to bid for the construction of two plants in the UK’s program of plant replacements, according to the Telegraph. It would seem that while many countries share Japan’s safety concerns, the cost associated with the alternatives — whether they are self-inflicted by Co2 emission targets or real ones such as import bills – mean nuclear remains a viable alternative if not an outright necessity.
By. Stuart Burns