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Japan Nuclear Restart Propels Energy-Poor Nation Along Rocky Road

Operators began gearing up the nuclear reactor at Kyushu Electric Power’s 31-year-old Sendai plant in the city of Satsumasendai last week. Sendai is about 600 miles (1,000 km) southwest of Tokyo on energy-poor Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu. The community closest to the plant and governor of the prefecture endorsed the plan as required by law, despite some opposition.

Sendai nuclear station (mashable.com)

Commercial operations are expected to begin early next month, a company spokesman said. A sister operation at the same place may restart this fall. The operator of the Fukushima I nuclear station, TEPCO, and the nation’s eight other regional utilities are not involved in the Sendai restart.

The situation is complex, perhaps no-win, no-win. Having no fossil fuel resources of its own, Japan must import about 84% of its fuel requirements, according to the World Nuclear Organization. Hundreds protested the restart on-site; but also, Japanese investors have significant coal and natural gas interests overseas.

Until the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that overwhelmed cooling systems at the Fukushima 1 complex, Japanese energy planners were counting on the nation’s growing nuclear industry (then representing 25-30% of fuels used for power) to provide at least 50% of primary energy in 2100, compared with 10% in 2008. The meltdowns, which irradiated a huge area and forced permanent evacuation of its center, forced major recalculations.

Although the government immediately shut down most its fleet of 40+ reactors after Fukushima for safety inspections and retrofits, it left two reactors temporarily to meet dire needs in the immediate area. They went offline by September 2013, making Japan nuclear-free for a couple of years.

But the nuclear shutdown left Japan in energy starvation. Power costs rose dramatically, LNG use increased by 50%, the energy industry faltered, the government had to stage bailouts, the trade deficit rose, and the economy suffered considerably.

Naoto Kan, Prime Minister at the time of the Fukushima disaster, had announced a plan to phase out nuclear power in energy-poor Japan by 2030. However, in a late 2012 vote of no-confidence following a series of scandals, the nation elected a new and more business-oriented leader, Shinzo Abe. Abe has vacillated issue-by-issue but essentially stuck to an “all of the above” energy strategy initially favored in the US by President Obama.

The nation has been working on renewable power, as CleanTechnica has noted in numerous reports. It has also investigated unconventional and untested strategies like recovery of methane clathrates (fire ice) from the seabed but has apparently shelved them. Abe favors nuclear restarts but has also made the politically wise decision to back stricter safety regulations proposed by the new nuclear regulation authority, including more backup prevention and higher tsunami-blocking walls.

Domestically, restarting Sendai and two other reactors this year will cut Japan’s demand for oil by 80,000 to 100,000 barrels a day, say Citigroup analysts. According to a Bloomberg report of four different studies, “Japan may boost its nuclear output to 11.5 gigawatts by March 31, 2017.”

Nonetheless, use of nuclear power remains controversial in the highly advanced but energy resource-poor nation of islands. The darling of nuclear power and big business, Abe has bucked public opposition here. According to the Mainichi newspaper this week, 57% of respondents in a national poll opposed the restart of the Kyushu plant. Only 30% were in favor. Naoto Kan, now one of the nation’s most highly placed anti-nuclear activists, believes that Abe should have cancelled the restart. That he did not “cannot be forgiven.” The PM has suffered a slip in national approval polls to 32%.

Some see the enforcement by Abe’s government as shallow and slipshod. Critics also fault the Sendai plan for its haste, lack of attention to world nuclear standards, and inadequate emergency and evacuation protocols. And as The Guardian points out:

“The Sendai plant is [now] a fortress protected by high perimeter fences and patrolled by security guards. At a tent village set up on a windswept beach just along the coast, anti-nuclear activists refuse to accept that Japan’s imminent nuclear reboot is inevitable.”

The government has authorized five restarts so far out of a possible 25 or so. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry proposed in its new plan and UN submission for Japan earlier this year: by 2030, the country will cut its electricity from fossil fuels to derive 56%, gain 22-24% from renewable energy, and 20-22%, from nuclear power.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015 cites utility industry executives as believing that 15% is a more realistic figure. The Citigroup analysts see the LNG surplus resulting from energy-poor Japan’s nuclear shot in the arm deflating gas prices worldwide. In other words, yet unexplored perils may lie in this already risky nuclear business.

 
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covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

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