Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is There Any Alternative to Nuclear Power?

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant has shaken the foundation of Japan's energy policy.

No alternative source of energy to nuclear power generation appears to be on the horizon, and the power cuts that Tokyo Electric Power Co. is resorting to in the capital and other cities are likely to continue for sometime to come.

The power shortage is not only disrupting the daily lives of the people, it will probably seriously affect the entire economy as many businesses are struggling to cope with the situation.

The government must come up with plans to find the power needed to grease the wheels of the country.

It is now forced to choose between two courses of action: Restore public confidence in nuclear power generation or find alternative energy sources.

Japan depends on other countries for most of its fuel, such as oil and liquefied natural gas. Crude oil and LNG are used for thermal power generation.

However, Japan will be in a bind if countries exporting fuel to this country are destabilized politically.

To ensure energy security, this country has to increase, even gradually, its sources of energy without relying too much on other countries.

Before the earthquake and tsunami disaster, the government came up with a plan to double the ratio of energy sources by nuclear power stations and renewable energy, including solar power, from about 35 percent in fiscal 2007 to 70 percent in fiscal 2030.

The government placed its hopes on nuclear power as a "semi-domestic energy source" because of its efficiency and because the amount of fuel required is small.

However, the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which stretches over the borders of Okumamachi and Futabamachi in Fukushima Prefecture, has forced the government to think twice about allowing construction of new nuclear power stations.

Already there are moves to suspend construction of nuclear power plants, such as Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s Kaminoseki plant in Kaminosekicho in Yamaguchi Prefecture and TEPCO's reactors at the Higashidori power plant in Higashidorimura in Aomori Prefecture.

The Higashidori plant is shared by [Sendai-based] Tohoku Electric Power Co. and TEPCO. Tohoku Electric has already started operating its No. 1 reactor and another is in the works, while TEPCO started construction of its No. 1 reactor in January and plans to build a second one.

Operations at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Kashiwazaki and Kariwamura in Niigata Prefecture stopped in 2007 following the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake.

The company has had great difficulty trying to win the understanding of local residents and governments toward fully restarting it. The plant is partially operating now.

As a stopgap measure, TEPCO plans to increase the operation rates of thermal power plants, but fuel costs for these power plants have increased sharply.

The political situations in Middle Eastern countries, which supply 90 percent of Japan's oil imports, are unstable and fuel imports therefore are unreliable.

Renewable energy sources, on which great expectations rest, still provide a relatively small amount of energy.

In addition, many technological problems must be solved before supplies can be increased in this field.

When Japan was adversely affected by two energy crises in the 1970s, the government and the private sector cooperated to make this country an "energy-saving society."

There is no other way to cope with the current situation than to conserve energy as much as possible.

However, a ranking Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry official issued a warning about summer shortages.

"Even if we engage in energy conservation, there'll be a shortage of electricity in the middle of summer. We need a plan to fundamentally solve the situation," the official said.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said Friday that his ministry would compile as early as the end of the month guidelines to restart operations at nuclear power stations after inspections are completed.

But will the government throw itself wholeheartedly behind the nuclear option? [Full story]

(Japan is the world's third biggest nuclear-electricity producer, after the United States and France--please see bar chart below, sorry for the blurriness. For information on Japan's nuclear crisis and its impact, please see my posts under the category/label "Japan." Clearer signals on incremental LNG demand are emerging from the two heaviest-hit Japanese power utilities: Together, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and Tohoku Electric will need roughly 485,000 tons per month of extra LNG to offset nuclear and thermal capacity lost as a result of the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami. Other Japaneses utilities may also need more LNG, as safety concerns have led them to delay restarting nuclear reactors closed for maintenance---please see: "Tepco, Tohoku Outline Summer LNG Needs," World Gas Intelligence, Mar 30, 2011, here. -- D.R.)
             [Click on bar chart to enlarge]
                                           Source: World Nuclear Association via The Economist, here

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