April 15, 2024

Japan’s Nuclear Future in the Balance

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other government officials said over the weekend that Japan would not abandon nuclear power as an important energy source.

But many experts say it will now be difficult for Japan to realize a policy goal that predates the Fukushima disaster: building at least 14 new reactors by 2030, to go with the 54 that exist now. If completed, those plants would raise nuclear power’s share of Japanese electricity generation to about 50 percent, from nearly 30 percent now.

Advocates for renewable energy argue that the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident have given the nation a reason to rebuild its economy as a world leader in clean, renewable energy — even though solar, wind and geothermal combined now account for only 1 percent of Japan’s electricity. An additional 8 percent or so comes from hydroelectric power.

“It is a battle between the future and the past,” said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a nonprofit policy research organization here.

Some members of Parliament recently held a forum, called Energy Shift Japan, to promote a move toward renewable sources.

And Masayoshi Son, the founder of Softbank and Japan’s richest man, said last month that he would donate about $12 million to start a research foundation for renewable energy. Continued reliance on atomic energy, he told a news conference, “would be a sin against our children, grandchildren and future generations.”

Those more attuned to the official government position, however, contend that renewable energy is too costly and requires too much land in this crowded country, leaving Japan little choice but to continue hitching its future to atomic energy, with fossil fuels filling any gap. “In the midterm, up to 2030, we cannot see the technological breakthrough that will allow us to get rid of nuclear power,” said Masakazu Toyoda, chief executive of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Even so, the future of the envisioned 14 reactors being planned is now unclear, with the public and local officials becoming more wary about living near such facilities. Already, the Tokyo Electric Power Company has been forced to drop plans to build two new reactors on the site of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.

And just last Friday, the government requested that another utility, Chubu Electric Power, shut down a nuclear power plant 120 miles southwest of Tokyo until the company can fortify its earthquake and tsunami defenses. On Monday, the company said it would comply. The company said on Monday that it would comply with that request. So many reactors have been shut down because of the earthquake or other factors, that soon only about 43 percent of Japan’s 49 megawatts of nuclear capacity will be operational, according to Reuters.

Japan’s heavy dependence on nuclear power stems from its energy insecurity. With virtually no oil and natural gas of its own, it is almost totally reliant on imported fossil fuels, making the nation vulnerable to disruptions, for example any that might arise from unrest in the Middle East. And the cost of imported fossil fuels has risen from the equivalent of 1 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product in 1998 to almost 5 percent now.

Japan also imports uranium. But because the fuel is easier to stockpile than oil and gas, the government considers nuclear energy a quasi-domestic source. Atomic energy, to the extent it replaces fossil fuels, also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is a little less expensive than energy from fossil fuels, according to the government.

Over the decades, nuclear power has been fostered by a close alliance between the government, electric companies and reactor manufacturers. Nuclear plants, as large, centralized sources of power, have helped Japan’s 10 main electric utilities maintain their control over the power grid.

The advent of a so-called smart grid that would handle power supplied by numerous small producers could threaten the utilities’ dominance. “What they want to do as much as possible is to keep distributed power off the agenda,” said Andrew DeWit, an expert on Japan’s energy policy at Rikkyo University.

While others beside the electric companies can generate electricity, so far this has not caught on in a big way. Now, though, some are calling for more competition in power production in an effort to spur innovation and bring down prices.

The government and power companies have not totally ignored renewable energy, but critics say they have not been aggressive enough. Over all, Ernst Young ranks Japan 15th in the world in terms of attractiveness of its renewable energy markets and policies.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=57709f2897eebebca133a4a016c5ccc9

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