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Japan has taken another step toward making nuclear power a key part of its energy profile, but some say that step, while small in terms of generating electricity, could be a major threat to public safety.
On Friday, Kansai Electric Power Co. restarted the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture about 90 miles northeast of Kyoto. The next day it reached criticality, meaning it had achieved enough mass to sustain a chain reaction. Commercial operations are expected to resume in late February.
Japan shut down its 43 nuclear reactors after the huge offshore earthquake and tsunami that swamped the Fukushima Daiichi power plant on the country’s Pacific coast, causing a meltdown at the facility owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in March 2011.
So far only three Japanese reactors, including the unit at Takahama, have been restarted, and 25 more are seeking permission to resume operations. The Japanese government appears eager to accommodate them, as it has set a goal of generating 22 percent of the country’s energy needs with nuclear power by 2030.
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Not everyone in Japan shares the government’s eagerness to once again increase reliance on nuclear power. The Takahama reactor was restarted despite a protest by dozens of people outside the power plant. Of the three reactors restarted since the Fukushima disaster, two use conventional fuel. The Takahama No. 3 reactor uses a hybrid of plutonium and uranium called “mixed oxide” or MOX.
Japan began using MOX in its reactors in 2009. It is believed to be safe to use it for as much as one-third of the mix of fuel in a reactor, but the substance emits more radioactive material and could be an impediment when engineers need to suppress a chain reaction when necessary.
Fukui, on the Sea of Japan, has more nuclear power plants than any other prefecture, and many residents of the neighboring prefectures of Kyoto and Shiga are concerned for their safety. They are especially worried about the possible contamination of Shiga’s Lake Biwa, which provides much of the drinking water for the country’s western regions.
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But it appears the government believes their concerns are exaggerated, and is pressing ahead with efforts to resume nuclear power generation as quickly as possible. The No. 1 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co’s Sendai plant in southern Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture was the first to resume operations in August 2015. The plant’s No. 2 reactor was back on line two months later.
Restarting the Takahama reactor “underscores the country’s commitment to returning to nuclear energy,” said Rob Chang, a managing director and head of metals and mining for the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald Canada. He told Bloomberg he expects three Japanese reactors will resume operations in 2016, eight more will reopen in 2017 and all 37 will be back online by 2020.
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And from the standpoint of energy independence alone, the government’s effort to restore a robust contribution from nuclear energy appears to be working already. The Finance Ministry reports that Japan imported 85 million metric tons of liquid natural gas (LNG) in 2015, a decline of 3.9 percent from 2014.
LNG imports are likely to decline even further next year, according to the energy consultancy Energy Aspects Ltd. of London. It forecast a drop of 2.4 million tons in LNG imports this year and 2.2 million tons more in 2017, again because of Japan’s steady return to its reliance on nuclear power.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com