December 5, 2014
Japan eyes returning to nuclear power, enthusiasm about renewable energy stymied
Three years and nine months after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan is considering turning to nuclear power once again in a policy shift from abandoning nuclear generation and promoting renewable energy.
On Aomori Prefecture's Shimokita Peninsula dotted with nuclear facilities, Electric Power Development Co. (J-Power), the nation's largest electric power wholesaler, is proceeding with building the Oma Nuclear Power Plant with an output capacity of 1.38 million kilowatts with a view to beginning operations in fiscal 2021. Mitsuo Omi, 83, chairman of a local construction company, says that when the power plant will go on line has been the talk of the town.
Construction began in May 2008 but was suspended in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant triggered by the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Some 1,700 workers were reduced to about 350. J-Power announced Nov. 13 that it is applying to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) as early as the end of this year for safety screening of the Oma plant under construction. Omi pins hopes on a resumption of the Oma plant construction, saying he and other construction companies will receive orders and guest houses and supermarkets will benefit.
The Oma plant would be the world's first reactor to operate solely on plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel. The city of Hakodate in Hokkaido, just north of Oma, filed suit against the central government and J-Power seeking a halt to the power plant project. Despite the plea from Hakodate across the Tsugaru Straits, many townspeople in Oma are turning a deaf ear. In February this year, J-Power suspended construction of a wind power station with an output capacity of about 18,000 kilowatts in the villages of Kazamaura and Sai, citing a shortage of power line capacity. Kazamaura village chief Koichi Iida and other townspeople got angry, saying the municipality should reconsider its cooperation with J-Power.
Aomori Prefecture boasts the country's largest wind power capacity of 333,000 kilowatts. The Shimokita Peninsula is an ideal location for wind power generation thanks to constant strong winds throughout the year but the power lines to power-consuming places are full to capacity. Tohoku Electric Power Co. says it cannot boost its power line capacity to only certain locations.
A 500,000-kilowatt mega solar project by a German company, Japan's largest, in the town of Yokohama was in jeopardy in September when Tohoku Electric announced a suspension of accepting solar power, saying supply tops the district's demand of 9.7 million kilowatts. A Yokohama town official says it is strange for Tohoku Electric to refuse solar power while lamenting idled nuclear reactors.
Similar tales of putting brakes on renewable energy due to a probable renewed reliance on nuclear power are omnipresent in other parts of the country. The main cause of the familiar scenes is the absence of a future energy mix policy.
The government planned to lay out an energy mix policy under a basic energy program adopted by the Cabinet in April, but the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and other parties balked, saying if high-cost renewable energy expands, it would squeeze households and corporate profit. The basic energy program said Japan will utilize nuclear power as an important base-load source of power generation and restart idled nuclear reactors. It also said Japan would reduce its dependence on nuclear power as much as possible by turning more to renewable energy but stopped short of setting any specific numerical target.
Japan is expected to decide on a future energy mix policy around June next year when the Group of Eight (G-8) major countries will discuss global warming during the annual summit. During the current general election campaign, there has been no specific debate on nuclear power and renewable energy, prompting the anti-nuclear opposition camp to accuse the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito of covering up the debate on nuclear power.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also LDP president, and Banri Kaieda, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, stumped in Fukushima Prefecture at the outset of campaigning Dec. 2 for the House of Representatives election. Kaieda denounced the Abe government for trying to restart idled nuclear reactors while Abe stressed the reconstruction efforts from the multiple disasters in 2011 but made no mention of nuclear power or energy issues.
In the absence of a clear-cut energy mix policy, electric power companies, confronted with aggravating financial conditions, are accelerating efforts to restart their idled nuclear reactors. Due to a shift to thermal power, their fuel costs rose by 3.6 trillion yen a year and the cumulative deficit by the nation's nine major utilities for the last three years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster surpassed 3 trillion yen. As electric power companies are raising prices one after another, an LDP executive warns the Japanese economy could be shaken to its foundations.
But it is not clear how many idled nuclear reactors would restart. The NRA began screening the safety of idled nuclear reactors in July last year but only two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture cleared the hurdle.
While the government says it will approve restarting idled nuclear reactors after the NRA's clearance, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka says he is not saying it is safe and would not commit to endorsing restarts.
Nagasaki University professor Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former acting chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, says that first of all there has to be debate on how much Japan should reduce nuclear power. He says the government is not serious about reducing Japan's dependence on nuclear power.
In July 2012, Japan launched a feed-in-tariff system which requires electric power companies to purchase electricity generated from renewable energy at fixed prices. But five electric power companies such as Tohoku and Kyushu suspended their purchases because only solar power increased.
Purchase prices for solar power were set much higher than those for wind power and other renewable energy, attracting massive applications. State-sanctioned solar power through August this year amounted to about 66 million kilowatts, accounting for more than 90 percent of all renewable energy.
The utilities say solar power alone sometimes tops each power district's overall demand and may lead to power failures. They appear to avoid an expansion of renewable energy due to rapid fluctuations of output and their ''poor quality,'' as compared to nuclear and thermal power.
In Europe, the share of renewable energy in relation to overall power generation in 2013 stood at 26.4 percent in Spain and 20.9 percent in Germany, as compared with 2.2 percent in Japan in fiscal 2013. Mika Obayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, says it is urgent for Japan to reform the nation's electric power system to broadly accommodate excess power generation from renewable energy.
December 05, 2014(Mainichi Japan)