Escalating energy prices may force Japan to re-start their nuclear power stations. This is according to Hiroyuki Hosoda, the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s general council. Kansaii Electric Power Co. and seven other power utilities posted a total loss of 674 billion yen (US$8.2bn) in the six months ended September 30, due to rising costs for running gas, oil and coal plants to make up for lost nuclear power generation. Qatar and Australia have been supplying Japan with liquefied natural gas to make up for the power shortfall. The companies face a bill of about 6.8 trillion yen for fuel this fiscal year, almost double that in the 12 months before the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Consumers will end up footing the bill as utilities are forced to increase rates in order to keep the world’s third-biggest economy running.
Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, almost 30% of the country’s electricity came from atomic energy. After the disaster, Japan’s government closed all 50 nuclear reactors but has recently re-opened only two plants. With the nuclear disaster still fresh on everyone’s minds, it is no surprise that thousands are protesting the return to nuclear power. A government-backed public forum, carried out in August 2011, shows that 47% are against the return to nuclear power. While the ruling Democratic Party of Japan promises to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power to zero by the 2030s, the opposing Liberal Democratic Party calls for a return to nuclear.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi explains that completely giving up Japan’s spent-fuel recycling policy, which would lose its role if nuclear power generation ends, is “currently not an option.” This statement is likely to encourage utilities, which have been desperate to restart idled reactors to boost their business. Utilities can now look at the possibility of allowing utilities to install new reactors that have been planned but are not yet under construction.
Hosoda says that the reactors should be restarted as soon as they are deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the new atomic watchdog.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has introduced draft safety measures to protect nuclear power facilities in Japan against natural disasters and terrorist attacks. The new safety rules will be mandatory under NRA standards. The rules are expected to pose difficulty for reopening reactors. The new safety measures are expected to be finalized in July 2013. The rules stipulate that nuclear facilities must be equipped with backup control rooms, located a safe distance away from reactor buildings. This will reduce the risk of staff being irradiated in an emergency. The nuclear plants also need to have protective structures in place to withstand the impact of a jet airliner in the event of a terrorist attack. The proposed measures cover many other things, including installation of vents capable of filtering out radioactive gases, and evacuating areas around nuclear power stations. The nuclear power plant operators will also need to apply to restart reactors.
Japan’s energy mix
The shutting down of Japan’s nuclear reactors has changed the nation’s perspective towards renewable energy technologies.
After the Fukushima disaster, Japan has been hard at work developing its alternative power options. The nation’s aim is to become energy independent based on renewables by 2040. The country is already in the process of developing the world’s largest offshore field of wind farms which are capable of generating 1GW- enough to power 700,000 households. The project is due for completion by 2020. Although the offshore wind farm will not replace Fukushima Daiichi’s 4.7GW output (much less compensate for the large amount of power taken offline from the other 53 plants that were shut down after the accident), it’s one of the largest wind projects to have been announced since the disaster.
The country has attracted about US$2bn in investment and interest from over 30,000 companies since it announced new feed-in tariffs, or the amount utility companies must pay for the energy the wind farms produce, in July, according to a renewable energy advocacy group, the Global Wind Energy Council.
According to a November 2011 report, compiled by the Global Wind Energy Council, Japan ended 2011 with 2.5GW of wind capacity. This is less than 1% of Japan’s electricity demand-a far cry from what is required to replace the power lost through idle nuclear stations.
The country is also in the process of building its largest solar power plant. The 81.5MW project is due for completion in 2014.
Japan boasts the third largest potential for geothermal power but it currently accounts for only 0.3%of the country’s total electricity production.
The GWEC says that Japan will need to consider a complete overhaul of its energy sector in order to accelerate renewable energy development. The report states that the most serious problem in Japan is the” monopolistic and vertically integrated structure of its utilities.”
The Fukushima disaster was a huge wake-up call for Japan. The disaster forced role-players to consider the dangers of aging and outdated nuclear power plant designs. In addition, the absence of nuclear power has seen an increased focus on the introduction of renewable energy sources to the country’s energy mix. Major efforts must be made in order to replace the old energy system with a more modern and flexible system which would accommodate the large deployment of renewables.