January 31, 2015
COMMENTARY: Utilities running a shell game in relying on nuclear power over renewable energy
By TOSHIHIDE UEDA/ Senior Staff Writer
When regional utilities calculated how much electricity generated with renewable energy sources they can purchase from businesses and individuals, they resorted to gimmicks to continue to place an unrealistic reliance on nuclear power.
Seven companies--Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co., Hokuriku Electric Power Co., Chugoku Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co., Kyushu Electric Power Co. and Okinawa Electric Power Co.--announced those “maximum acceptable quotas” at a meeting of an industry ministry working group on Dec. 16.
At six of the utilities, except for Chugoku Electric, the allotments for solar power were smaller than the combined output capacities that the government authorized for businesses and individuals, from which they are required to buy solar power at fixed rates under the feed-in-tariff system.
The maximum acceptable quotas are calculated by assigning part of the power demand to established types of power plants, such as nuclear, thermal, hydro and pumped storage, and the rest to relatively new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.
Allocating more to established energy sources removes an equal amount off the quotas for the new energy sources.
Under the feed-in-tariff system, many businesses have acquired the right to sell renewable energy--while the purchase price is high--but have yet to start plant construction.
The practice, known as paper-only slot reservations, is hampering the introduction of more green energy.
The industry ministry working group is tasked with reviewing how much renewable energy the utilities can purchase from businesses and individuals.
When I listened to its discussions on Dec. 16, I thought, “This is nothing but a new twist on slots being reserved on paper only.” This time around, regional utilities are reserving slots for nuclear power.
How one of their gimmicks works can be seen in the case of the Oma nuclear power plant, being built by Electric Power Development Co. (J-Power) in Oma, Aomori Prefecture. Construction was halted after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, only to be resumed in October 2012.
By coincidence, it was on the day of the working group meeting that J-Power applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for safety screenings of the Oma plant based on Japan’s tightened regulation standards, marking a major step toward full-fledged construction work.
Tohoku Electric presupposes, in accepting the supply of renewable energy, that it will receive 280 megawatts of power from the Oma nuclear plant.
But construction of the Oma plant is only 37.6 percent complete. J-Power says it hopes to have the plant operational in fiscal 2021, which means the plant will only begin generating power seven years from now even if everything goes as planned.
And it remains to be seen how long it will take the NRA to complete its screenings.
The Oma plant is designed to use mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which contains both uranium and plutonium extracted from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel. The use of MOX fuel in a regular nuclear reactor is called a “pluthermal” program.
While it is customary to use MOX fuel in only about one-third of all fuel, the Oma plant is aimed at full-MOX operations, which involve exclusive use of MOX fuel. Such operations are unprecedented in the world.
Regular pluthermal operations have a track record of more than four decades in Western countries. Japan also implemented pluthermal programs at four nuclear reactors from 2009, so records that are essential for safety screenings are reasonably available.
But full-MOX operations would require screenings to be conducted from scratch.
Kenji Sumita, who served as deputy chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, one of the predecessors of the NRA, is a proponent of nuclear power but is skeptical of a full-MOX pluthermal program.
“Germany attempted to do full-MOX operations in the past, but didn’t do so in the end,” said Sumita, a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering with Osaka University. “The practice involves so many unknown factors, including the status of the reactor core during operation. The plan should be cautiously screened.”
The Oma nuclear plant is also under court proceedings.
The city government of Hakodate, Hokkaido, part of which lies within 30 kilometers of the Oma plant, filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court in April 2014 against J-Power and the central government to demand a halt to the construction. The trial could affect the entry into service of the plant.
Tohoku Electric has nevertheless reserved a slot for the Oma plant. The reservation will remain on paper only until the Oma plant is operational.
“We have taken into account the long-term nature of our purchases of renewable energy,” said Hideto Takahashi, who heads the equipment planning division of Tohoku Electric’s Fukushima branch office.
The Oma plant is not the exception.
Tohoku Electric’s calculations include a prospective power supply from the No. 1 through No. 3 reactors of its Onagawa nuclear plant, the No. 1 reactor of its Higashidori nuclear plant, the No. 1 reactor of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant and Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant.
The situation is much the same with five other regional utilities that possess nuclear plants. They have reserved maximum slots for power from nuclear reactors, including two that are so aged that there is talk of decommissioning them--the No. 1 reactor of JAPC’s Tsuruga nuclear plant and the No. 1 reactor of Chugoku Electric’s Shimane nuclear plant.
Of course, no nuclear reactor in Japan is up and running now. And the calculations assume that all nuclear reactors will be restarted.
TRICKERY OF THE MATH
The assumption of constant nuclear reactor utilization rates, used in the calculations, is also very questionable.
The utilization rates were averaged over a 30-year period preceding the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Tohoku Electric assumes, for example, that nuclear reactors will be generating a constant power supply of 2.35 gigawatts because “that is how the calculations are done in the working group,” in the words of a Tohoku Electric official.
But I doubt that nuclear reactors have actually been utilized to that extent.
Demand in Tohoku Electric’s service area bottoms out at 7.91 gigawatts on May 12. Nuclear power accounts for 30 percent, or 2.35 gigawatts.
Nuclear reactors are obligated to undergo routine inspections at regular intervals. Tohoku Electric’s four reactors underwent a total of 38 regular checks before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Twenty-one of them were conducted during a period including May 12, the day of the lowest power demand.
It is all too natural for utilities to carry out inspections when the demand for power is low. In the case of Hokkaido Electric, too, 40 percent of its pre-disaster periodic inspections came during a period including May 26, the date of its minimum demand.
The average utilization rate is 69.8 percent for Tohoku Electric and 84.8 percent for Hokkaido Electric. It is unnatural to assume the utilization rates will reach those levels when demand is low.
The central government and regional utilities have nevertheless calculated how much renewable energy can be bought only after setting aside maximum amounts for nuclear power. Their primary concern appears to be about reserving slots for nuclear energy.
We have to be on guard against trickery aimed at putting a priority on nuclear power.
In an emergency recommendation in November, the Fukushima prefectural government called on the central government, Tohoku Electric and other parties to take prompt action to eliminate stalled renewable energy projects. However, there have been no signs of improvement.
“Paper-only slot reservations could be eliminated if only rules were to be set and utilities were to respond properly,” said Shuzo Sasaki, director of the energy division of the Fukushima prefectural government.
“But utilities won’t tell you what is taking place. So, if you want to start a renewable energy project, all you can do is make daily visits to the utility office in charge and keep submitting application forms.”
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The author, based in Fukushima, wrote on other issues.
Fukushima battling utilities' 'no more green energy' decision
In age of LEDs, utilities thinking in incandescent-bulb mode
Fukushima's micro-hydropower ambitions face challenges
Fukushima alive with seeds of industrial innovation
Radioactive pollution endangers cultures of Tohoku mountain communities
Abnormal changes in small birds and the role of science
Disaster-hit Tohoku communities search for a renewable way
January 31, 2015