Three years after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster prompted the closure of all Japan’s nuclear reactors, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to revive nuclear power as a core part of the energy mix, but many of those idled reactors will never come back online.
As few as one-third — and at most about two-thirds — of the reactors will pass today’s more stringent safety checks and clear the other seismological, economic, logistical and political hurdles needed to restart, analysis shows.
This means that Japan is likely to remain heavily reliant on imported fuel to power the world’s third-largest economy, straining a trade balance that has been in the red for nearly two years, while electric utilities face huge liabilities to decommission reactors and pay for fossil fuels.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co and Kyushu Electric Power Co — both facing a third year of financial losses — are seeking capital infusions totaling nearly US$1.5 billion from a state-owned lender. Kyushu Electric shares dropped as much as 7 percent on Wednesday to an eight-week low. Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) was bailed out by the government after the March 2011 disaster.
Continuing indefinitely to burn more coal and gas also means Tokyo will find it much harder to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Japan had 54 nuclear reactors supplying about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity before an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima station in 2011, leaving the six reactors at the plant shut forever and slated for a decades-long decommissioning process.
Of Japan’s remaining four dozen reactors, 14 will probably be restarted at some point, a further 17 are uncertain and 17 will probably never be switched back on, the Reuters analysis suggests. As a result, nuclear energy could remain below 10 percent of Japan’s power supply.
The analysis is based on questionnaires and interviews with more than a dozen experts and input from the 10 nuclear operators. It takes into account such factors as the age of the plants, nearby seismic faults, additional work needed to address safety concerns, evacuation plans and local political opposition.
It is impossible to say how many reactors will eventually pass safety inspections and win local approval to restart, but the Reuters analysis constitutes “a very good guess,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, who stepped down this week as vice chairman of the government’s Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
Japan previously had the third-highest number of nuclear reactors, behind France and the US. In Asia, China currently has 21 reactors and South Korea 23.
A number at the low end of the analysis’ calculations could make it impossible for Japan to reinstate nuclear as a “base-load” power source — enough to feed a constant minimum supply to the grid — as specified in a draft national energy plan that the government may adopt soon.
In a measure of the keen interest in and lack of hard information about Japan’s nuclear restarts, shares of uranium producers such as Canada’s Cameco Corp and Australia’s Paladin Energy Ltd jumped as much as 15 percent last month due to the news that Tokyo had compiled a final draft of the energy plan.
The Japanese public have turned against nuclear power after watching TEPCO struggle to deal with the Fukushima disaster and recent polls put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support.