News about Japan: Why Japan needs nuclear energy

Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture whose two reactors are the only ones operating in the country.

Two years after coastal areas of the Tohoku region were struck by giant tsunami on March 11, 2011, operations are suspended at nearly all nuclear power plants nationwide.

The operations at these facilities were halted by taking into consideration a bitter lesson of the severe nuclear crisis that struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake which caused tsunami much higher than previously assumed. Measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of domestic nuclear power stations.

The Yomiuri Shimbun has since insisted that nuclear plants whose safety is confirmed should be reactivated. We believe it is essential to ensure a stable electric power supply by taking advantage of nuclear power generation, a task that needs to be carried out to revitalize and stabilize the economy.

We are also convinced that Japan’s international obligation–as a nation of high technological excellence–is to use the nuclear disaster’s grim lessons to build and maintain fail-safe nuclear power stations.

Point 1: The nation’s economy cannot be revitalized unless suspended domestic nuclear power plants are brought back online. Uncompromising efforts must be made to improve the safety of these facilities.

A number of people in disaster-hit areas are still afflicted by the aftermath of the nuclear crisis at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant. The outbreak of the nuclear disaster has forced an estimated 160,000 people to flee their homes in Fukushima Prefecture, hoping to avoid the influence of radioactive substances released into the air from the crippled nuclear power compound. These evacuees are living in distant places both in and outside the prefecture. For the part of evacuees, it is unclear when–or even whether–they will be able to return home.

Little progress has been made in clearing away debris from the massive earthquake and tsunami, a task that must be completed to rehabilitate the devastated areas.

On May 7, the Environment Ministry said it would be difficult to accomplish its initial target of clearing up all rubble in the prefecture by the end of next March. The ministry attributed the situation to an extreme delay in debris-removal work in and around the crippled nuclear facility.

The situation has been exacerbated by the inability of seven town and village governments near the nuclear plant to fully assess the actual circumstances in their areas, as the disaster forced them to relocate to places in the jurisdiction of other local governments.

The local governments are finding it difficult to draw up specific plans for the post-disaster reconstruction of their areas.

Meanwhile, the nuclear disaster has cast a shadow over the nation’s stable power supply.

There are 50 nuclear reactors in this country. But power corporations had to shut down a number of reactors with the aim of implementing measures to make their facilities more tsunami-resistant, including projects to raise the height of their seawalls.

In May 2012, the nation was left with no operating reactors. The resulting loss of electric power was equivalent to about 30 percent of the total power demand. The utilities have managed to make up for the shortage by putting outdated and suspended thermal power plants to work.

Under the circumstances, however, electricity demand could exceed the current power supply at any time.

The power shortage could become particularly acute during the summer, when the mercury could rise as high as 40 C. Without air-conditioning, the lives of elderly people could be at risk, as many of them are not able to sufficiently regulate their body temperatures. If a power failure were to occur, it could mean an immediate threat to the lives of patients undergoing surgery at hospitals.

Last summer, the Kansai region faced the danger of power outages due to a short supply of electricity. The region’s electric power circumstance is marked by a heavy reliance on nuclear power. In fact, the Kansai region depends on nuclear plants for about half of its power output.

As it turned out, the Kansai region narrowly averted a power outage last summer. Kansai Electric Power Co. took urgent measures to secure enough power output to meet demand.

It reactivated two suspended reactors at its Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture after obtaining confirmation from the government regarding the safety of the facilities. The reactors had been undergoing periodic inspections since before the nuclear disaster.

More than two years after the 2011 disaster, all domestic nuclear reactors remain under suspension–except for the two at the Oi facility.

The political situation on energy issue took a turn in February. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party came out with measures to overcome the precarious state of the power supply, saying operations likely would resume at suspended power plants one by one after affirming the safety of each reactor.

The LDP’s move came after its return to power in December’s general election following the party’s three years and three months in the political wilderness.

The LDP’s policy is similar to the line of argument advanced by The Yomiuri Shimbun. The Yomiuri has opposed the “zero nuclear” energy policy put forward by the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan in the wake of the nuclear disaster.

The DPJ’s policy calls for an end to reliance on nuclear power in what would amount to a “departure from nuclear energy in 2030s.”

If all domestic nuclear power plants were scrapped as proposed by the DPJ, it would nearly double the current charges for electricity. Higher electricity bills would impose a heavy financial burden on the corporate sector and ordinary households.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey taken in March, 69 percent of those polled said they were “concerned” about possible health hazards due to radioactive substances released by the nuclear incident. At the same time, however, a considerable 73 percent of respondents expressed “apprehension” about the effect on the Japanese economy if all nuclear power plants were shut down.

These figures reflect a mix of conflicting sentiments felt by the public about the country’s energy policy. Antinuclear energy activities, such as street rallies, opposing reactivation of reactors are continuing.

Fuel imports–mainly liquefied natural gas (LNG)–have sharply increased from pre-disaster levels. The growth in such imports can be attributed to an increase in thermal power generation.

This has translated into a hefty 3 trillion yen increase in annual fuel import costs, a factor that continues to adversely affect the economy.

Japan depends on imported energy resources for much of its energy consumption. The halt in nuclear power generation has hiked the nation’s reliance on oil and LNG imports, prices of which have remained high, mainly because of political instability in and around the Middle East, including Syria.

Higher fuel import costs are draining wealth from our nation.

A large number of people in quake-hit areas still face great difficulties. The government must extend considerable assistance to those struggling to rebuild their lives, a task that should be complemented by continued efforts to reduce the impact of radioactive substances discharged from the accident.

In fact, city, town and village governments nationwide that host nuclear power plants fear a nuclear disaster may also strike their area. Their concern is shared by local governments in their neighboring areas. Resuming operations at suspended power plants requires, first and foremost, approval from the municipalities in and around these facilities, as well as prefectural governments in those regions even after the authorities’ confirmation of the safety of a nuclear plant.

With the grim lessons from the 2011 nuclear disaster in mind, power corporations must secure a higher degree of safety in operating their facilities. At the same time, it is essential to convince people at home and abroad that the safety measures taken by the utilities will fulfill their purposes.

Point 2: Japan should pursue the goal of operating the safest nuclear plants in the world based on strict safety standards compiled by a regulatory body independent of the government.

The purpose of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, an organization established by the government in September, is to implement appropriate regulations for the safe operation of nuclear power plants.

Before then, this nuclear regulation role has been carried out by an external entity of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, which was also tasked with promoting the domestic nuclear industry and related policies.

However, more than a few experts highlighted the contradictory nature of this system, in which the ministry both promoted and regulated nuclear power, saying this resulted in lax regulations on nuclear power plants. Consequently, they said, safety checks on nuclear plants to verify antitsunami measures were insufficient.

Therefore, the government set up the NRA as an organization whose independence is guaranteed, based on the U.S. model of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuclear crisis was triggered by power lines being severed at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The power cables, which were damaged by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, provided electricity to run cooling systems for the plant’s nuclear reactors. Additionally, the Fukushima plant’s backup generators, which were installed underground, became inoperative after a direct hit by tsunami. As a result, the plant lost the means to cool its reactors.

Thus, the worst-case scenario became reality–the reactors’ nuclear fuel rods started melting, releasing radioactive substances into the environment.

Two major lessons were learned from the crisis. First, seawalls must be built as high as possible to prevent damage from tsunami. Next, backup generators must be positioned on higher ground.

The NRA has incorporated these lessons into its new regulatory/safety standards to be compiled in July. Starting that month, power suppliers will be required to meet various safety standards, the core of which revolve around countermeasures for earthquakes and tsunami. Measures to guard against terrorist attacks are also required.

“We’ll ensure our regulatory standards are the strictest in the world, now and in the future,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said.

Thus, to restart operations, idled reactors must pass safety checkups to be carried out according to the new regulations. Currently, 48 nuclear reactors remain suspended across the country.

Power suppliers have already begun implementing safety measures in preparation for the new regulations. For example, TEPCO has stationed 23 emergency power-supply vehicles at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture. Tohoku Electric Power Co. plans to raise the height of its Onagawa nuclear plant’s seawall to 29 meters from the current 17. The Onagawa plant escaped damage during the 2011 disaster despite its location in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the three prefectures hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami.

Point 3: Japan has a responsibility to improve the safety of nuclear power plants around the world by exporting its advanced technology.

Turning our eyes to the world, many governments, particularly ones in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, are accelerating moves to construct nuclear power plants. According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., 76 nuclear reactors were under construction as of January 2013, half of which are in emerging economies in Asia–32 in China, four in South Korea and two in Taiwan.

Plans to build new reactors or plants have emerged in Vietnam and Indonesia, for instance, suggesting that dependence on nuclear power in Asia will rapidly increase in the near future.

Several Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic plan to construct nuclear plants.

These countries have high expectations for Japan in terms of nuclear technology. Japanese heavy industry firms have been nurturing nuclear power plant technology since the 1960s. They have been developing reactors that are highly cost-efficient and safe, with excellent manufacturing technology and quality controls.

Indeed, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was hit by an unprecedentedly huge tsunami, which caused the nuclear crisis. However, Japan is undoubtedly still at the top level in the world in terms of antiearthquake and antitsunami measures for nuclear reactors.

This point can be easily understood from the fact that many countries still want Japan’s nuclear power technology, even after the Fukushima nuclear crisis. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Turkey in May, he was accompanied by a delegation of Japanese business leaders and succeeded in winning a de facto order for nuclear reactors. In addition, many countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, show strong interest in Japan’s nuclear power generation technology.

To meet the expectations of other countries, Japan must help keep nuclear plants safe around the world by sending nuclear safety experts overseas as well as exporting nuclear power generation technology. Japan also has a responsibility to pass on the lessons it has learned via exhaustive investigations of the Fukushima nuclear crisis to the world. To that end, it is necessary to ensure the safety of currently idled domestic reactors so they can be reactivated as soon as possible.

Diversify energy resources

Point 4: Japan’s energy self-sufficiency ratio is low, and the nation’s overreliance on the Middle East for oil imports despite the political instability of the region is problematic. Purchasing electricity from other countries is also extremely difficult, as Japan is an island nation with no power lines extending abroad.

Japan has scant energy resources. Research conducted by the International Energy Agency in 2010 showed 96 percent of Japan’s energy that year came from overseas. This percentage was remarkably higher than the 32 percent energy import rate of the United States, the 35 percent observed in Britain, and China’s 10 percent.

Additionally, petroleum, which was used to satisfy about 40 percent of energy demand, mainly comes from Middle East countries, some of which are rife with political instability.

Japan is well aware of risk of relying on limited energy sources. In the 1970s, a decade marked by heavy oil dependence, shocks in the oil market caused by price hikes imposed by oil-producing countries dealt a serious blow to the Japanese economy. The Japanese public also became worried about rapid inflation.

After this crisis, the public and private sectors teamed up to promote new energy sources, such as nuclear power and liquefied natural gas, to reduce domestic petroleum demand.

Germany is trying to replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. However, as these types of resources are greatly affected by the weather, they cannot guarantee a stable supply of electricity. The costs of generating power with these renewable resources are also high.

But as European countries are contiguous and connected by feeder lines, one country can always buy electricity from another country such as France–a nuclear giant in terms of power generation–should renewable energy outputs fall short due to weather. These options are impossible for Japan as an island nation.

There are various sources of energy, such as thermal power generation with fossil fuels. Natural sources include hydroelectric, solar, wind and geothermal. Nuclear power generation using uranium that can be imported from Australia and Canada–nations that are very stable politically–is another option. Since Japan is poor in natural resources, its future depends on whether it can find an optimal mix of these energy sources.

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