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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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A Return To Nuclear May Be Japan’s Only Option

A Return To Nuclear May Be Japan’s Only Option

Four years after the Fukushima meltdown, Japan is finally eyeing a return to nuclear power.

To be sure, some, if not most of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors will remain offline permanently. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is crafting a proposal that could lead to nuclear power reclaiming about 20 percent of Japan’s electricity market.

It is hard to imagine such a revival. Nuclear power made up just under 30 percent of the country’s electricity generation before the catastrophic tsunami hit in 2011. Now it is at zero percent. Strict new safety standards and strong public opposition will likely keep many of the reactors on the sidelines.

But the ruling party is pressing ahead. In mid-March the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) gave the go-ahead to Kyushu Electric Power for upgrades to its Sendai nuclear power plant, removing a hurdle for the plant’s return to service. Kyushu hopes to power up the reactor by June. More approvals could be forthcoming, particularly if the Liberal Democratic Party gets its way. Related: The $6.8 Billion Great Wall Of Japan: Fukushima Cleanup Takes On Epic Proportion

Assuming that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is able to muscle through his proposal to bring nuclear back, what would that mean for Japan?

1. Imports of LNG, Coal, and Oil down. Japan is massively dependent on imported energy. It is the world’s largest LNG importer, second largest importer of coal, and third largest importer of crude oil. If Japan managed to ramp up nuclear power to 20 percent of its electricity, it would be able to slash its purchases of fossil fuels dramatically.

2. Weaker Economics for Energy Exporters. Japan’s sharp increase of fossil fuel consumption for power generation after Fukushima raised international prices, particularly for LNG. Spot LNG cargoes in Asia – the so-called JKM marker – spiked, selling for more than three times the price of natural gas found in the United States. The JKM marker has since come down both because more LNG supplies have come online and due to the collapse in oil prices. A return to nuclear power will obviate the need for elevated imports of LNG, keeping JKM prices from returning to their highs of 2011-2013. That will cap the market for LNG exporters around the world, pushing many LNG export projects into the red – from Western Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, to Australia. LNG will be a major loser of Japan’s nuclear restart. Related: Putin May Have Last Laugh Over Western Sanctions

3. Trade deficit and electricity rates down. In the three years following Fukushima, Japan spent $270 billion on coal, oil, and LNG imports, a 58 percent increase over what it otherwise would have spent had its nuclear fleet remained online. That forced Japan to run a trade deficit for the first time in 30 years. Japan’s trade balance went from a $65 billion surplus in 2010 to a $112 billion deficit three years later, owing mostly to higher fossil fuel imports. That also translated into higher electricity prices. Japan’s electricity rates increased by 30 percent for industry and 20 percent for residential homes, respectively. Nuclear power can help reverse the ballooning trade deficit and rising electricity costs.

4. Greenhouse Gases. The loss of nuclear power has taken a toll on Japan’s climate posture, as Japan’s greenhouse gases hit a record in 2013. In the absence of nuclear power, Japan is planning on building a lot more coal plants. It has backtracked on its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That could change if nuclear power plays a larger role in the future. More nuclear power generation would mean burning through a whole lot less coal, oil, and natural gas. That would significantly help keep a lid on Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions. Related: Many Big Guns Still Betting On Oil Comeback In 2015

5. Going Against the Public. Still, despite all the positives that would come from bringing its nuclear reactors back online, nuclear power is horrifically unpopular in Japan at this point. A strong majority of the public opposes turning back to nuclear power, with some opinion polls showing as much as 60 percent of the country opposes restarting any reactors. If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeds in reviving the nuclear industry, he will need to steamroll a very skeptical public.

Due to the destroyed reactors at Fukushima along with several others that have been mothballed because of inadequate safety or high costs, only 43 reactors out of the original 54 have the potential to be switched back on. Of that amount, in all likelihood, only a few will see a return to action. In a 2014 report, Reuters projected that fewer than one-third of Japan’s reactors would be able to pass new safety rules or, “clear the other seismological, economic, logistical and political hurdles needed to restart.” That means Japan may fall far short of Prime Minister Abe’s goal of meeting 20 percent of the country’s power needs from nuclear power.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Loyd Marlow on April 06 2015 said:
    Good to see that 60 percent of Japanese are anti-restart, anti-nuke. I look at it this way....if you are trying to recover from a single shot from a double barrel shotgun blast to the face it ....pulling the other trigger will not help. The unprecedented worldwide denial of the extent of the current ongoing disaster at Fukushima is apalling.
  • TD on April 06 2015 said:
    I'd have to disagree with you Loyd.

    Certainly, prior to Fukushima Japanese utilities and regulators took their nuclear programs from granted and human error was the clear driver in the outcome of Fukushima. Thankfully, the response from emergency workers and utility staff resulted it significant crisis mitigation that could have been much worse.

    Sure the people remain skeptical of nuclear energy, but they themselves haven't likely experienced the full economic impacts of living without nuclear. With consumer household rates rising by roughly 12-15%, its been big industry, government and utilities who have been experiencing blow after blow.

    For a country so reliant on energy imports and with renewable generation still unreliable, having nuclear a part of the mix is crucial for a country like Japan.

    We can either learn from our mistakes or live in fear of them, your claim of unprecedented worldwide denial is a actually case of learning and resolving.
  • KM on April 06 2015 said:
    And I disagree with TD

    "Certainly, prior to Fukushima Japanese utilities and regulators took their nuclear programs from granted "

    Problem with this statement is Windscale, 3 mile island, Chernobyl and thousands of small accidents that never make international news.

    Still no waste storage solution. Still very expensive. Also the article ignores Solar, wind, offshore wind, tidal, wave, geothermal, heat pumps, hydrogen economy, battery advances and pumped hydro etc.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on April 06 2015 said:
    "...big industry, government and utilities ... have been experiencing blow after blow" -- some industries are way ahead, obviously. Some are behind. Tens of billions of annual dollars in additional fossil fuel use will do that.

    But how does TD figure *government* is having a hard time? Of that kilobucks-per-second fossil fuel revenue bonanza, a significant share goes to the civil service. For instance, according to Japan Times' Sep. 29, 2012 article "Green tax to come into force in October", an additional tax on LNG was coming on stream at that time, at a rate such that $140 million a month would be for the Japanese who matter. Increases were scheduled for April 2014 and April 2016.

    True, the balance of trade is severely affected. Is there a Japanese government department that loses headcount when that is true?

    The results of recent major elections suggest it is government that wants the nukes to stay switched off, the electorate that wants them back, and government-friendly media that publish polls intended to obscure this point.

    Fun fact: the response from the office of Chief Engineer Naoto Kan resulted in significant crisis dis-mitigation. As minor as the offsite physical effects of the meltdowns were, they could have been much minorer. Of course, since then, Kan has been flitting the world saying it was the machines' fault, and the actual engineers', not his.

    Do you suppose he's doing this on just his pension?

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