The Other Nuclear Country

Published July 13, 2015

The fuel is now loaded into the reactor, following inspections, the switch will be flipped and, around August 10, the reactor will be fired up. Three days later, transmission of electricity is expected to start, ramping up to full power and commercial operation in September. The same process is expected to take place at a second reactor in September/October.

Despite public protest, Japan is going nuclear—again.

Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the severe accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor in northeastern Japan, all nuclear reactors were gradually switched off for inspections. No commercial reactor has been online in Japan for nearly two years. Due to safety concerns, the country’s nuclear power generation has been at a standstill. Meanwhile, new regulatory standards have been developed and reactors are undergoing inspections.

Prior to 2011, nuclear power provided nearly one third of Japan’s electricity. Lost power-generation capacity has been replaced by importing pricey fossil fuels. Japan has few natural resources of its own. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports: “Japan imports more than 90% of its fossil fuels, and is particularly dependent on the Middle East for oil and natural gas.”

The loss of nuclear power has, according to the CS Monitor, raised household utility bills in Japan by 20 percent. A survey of Japanese manufacturers, conducted by the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, found that increases in power rates represented the greatest burden for more than 40 percent of the 335 firms who responded, and that “chronic power outages” and further increases in power rates “would do serious damage to industries located in the Kansai region.” The WSJ confirms: “businesses say the rise in electricity costs without the nuclear reactors makes it harder to run a factory in Japan.”

The economic impact of shifting from nuclear power to imported fossil fuels is evident in Japan’s trade deficits., John Manfreda sees a direct correlation. He says: “Before the Fukushima accident occurred, Japan’s economy was driven by its large trade surpluses, which it achieved year after year. However, since Fukushima, Japan reversed that trend, and began posting trade deficits on a yearly basis.”

Japan’s reliance on nuclear power began after OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo that caused a severe energy shortage and nearly derailed its economic progress. Manfreda reports: “When this embargo ended, Japan conducted a national energy study to find out how the country could implement an energy policy that would protect supplies from future embargoes and geopolitical turmoil. The ultimate conclusion of the study was that Japan needed to invest heavily in the use of nuclear power, which could supplant imported fossil fuels for electricity. After that study, the development of nuclear power was considered a national priority.”

Japan has, once again, reviewed its energy needs. The fourth Basic Energy Plan, approved in June 2015, concludes: “Nuclear power is an ‘important power source that supports the stability of our energy supply and demand structure.'” The plan increases nuclear from current levels by restarting most of the idle plants, while calling for an approximate 10 percent reduction from the pre-Fukushima level of 30 percent. WSJ adds: “Japan also plans to continue its use of coal, the cheapest of its energy imports. …Already this year, the nation’s utilities have announced the construction of seven new coal-fired power plants.”

Due to its need for power and its reliance on fossil fuels, Japan revised its emissions targets, saying, according to the New York Times: “it would release 3 percent more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it did in 1990, rather than the 6 percent cut it originally promised or the 25 percent reduction it promised two years before the 2011 nuclear accident.” In 2012, Japan opted out of a proposed U.N. Kyoto Protocol extension. WSJ reports: “The government’s energy plan also seeks to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, but doesn’t stop companies’ plans to spend billions of dollars on new plants powered by cheap coal from countries like Australia and the U.S.”

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) favors nuclear power because it is a “quasi-domestic source” (four of the world’s top six manufacturers of nuclear plant technology are Japanese or Japanese-owned). Addressing Japan’s plan,World Nuclear News states: nuclear power “gives stable power, operates inexpensively and has a low greenhouse gas profile.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government reportedly wants to operate as many nuclear plants as possible “to meet the nation’s energy needs and grow the economy.” Twenty-five reactors are seeking a restart.

The plant, fueled up on July 10 and scheduled to start commercial operation in September, is one of two reactors being restarted at the Sendai Nuclear Power Station, owned by Kyushu Electric Power Company. With all six of its reactors idle, Kyushu Electric has been “reeling from losses caused by hefty imported fossil fuel costs to run conventional power plants.” Likewise, Chubu Electric Power Company, according to the Japan Times, has applied to restart the Number 3 reactor at its Hamaoka nuclear plant and hopes to resume power generation as soon as possible “to reduce its reliance on expensive fossil fuels.”

“There is no greater issue for the health of the Japanese economy,” Robert Feldman, managing director of Morgan Stanley’s MUFG Securities Co., opined in WSJ, “than energy.” Echoing the sentiment, Masahiro Sakane, chairman of a panel sponsored by METI that has been debating the energy mix, said: “The most important thing is energy self-sufficiency.”

Regarding Japan’s energy plan, Makoto Yagi, Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan chairman, stated: “We believe that energy policy is a core policy of a nation and must be approached from a medium to long-term standpoint.”

Japan is restarting its nuclear program. Iran, supposedly, wants nuclear power. Driven by the need for clean reliable power, the need to bolster energy security, and reduce dependence on imported fuels, many other countries are pursuing nuclear power. Russia has eight reactors under construction—which will double its nuclear capacity.  China has 26 reactors in operation and 24 under construction and is now building identical power plants that allow for cost efficiencies that come with mass production. Many new plants, such as the reactors being built in the U.S., utilize “third-generation designs that improve safety and cut costs,” E&E News reports. Fourth-generation reactors, which use different coolants and fuels, are in the proposal stages.

The lesson is here is less about nuclear power and more about the need for energy that is cost-effective, reliable, and secure.

In a country like Japan, with limited natural resources, nuclear power meets the need. In the U.S., where we are rich in coal, oil, natural gas and uranium (the fuel for nuclear power), we have more options and should select the energy source that is right for specific needs and locales. As Japan has learned, energy is one of the most important components of the economy and expensive energy has hurt it.

Japan has an energy plan that is a “core policy” of the nation. In the U.S., instead of having an energy policy, we continue to drive up costs by regulating away our energy advantage and throwing money at expensive renewable energy—with the Clean Power Plan ignoring new nuclear. It is time for America to really evaluate our energy needs and maximize our advantage.