Nuke power gets another look, but concerns persist

by Shinya Ajima

Kyodo News

With Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama having set a more ambitious emissions reduction target than that pledged by former rival Taro Aso, nuclear power is emerging as one of the most effective potential solutions.

In the only country to have been hit by atomic bombs, however, the hurdles will remain high for those advocating greater use of nuclear energy, which is touted as “cleaner” in terms of carbon emissions than fossil fuels, despite producing radioactive toxic waste that poses numerous disposal problems.

In addition, the Democratic Party of Japan’s alliance with a smaller party that is demanding the abandonment of nuclear technologies may also hinder the push to go nuclear.

The glow produced by the DPJ’s historic victory in last month’s general election began fading as business leaders turned to complaining about the potential cost of pursuing Hatoyama’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2020.

The business leaders said Hatoyama should present realistic measures for attaining the goal at a time when Japan’s energy-efficiency is already the highest among the industrialized economies and solar and other alternative clean energy sources can only supplement the role established by nuclear and fossil fuels.

Hatoyama has said his government will adopt all necessary policies to achieve the target, though he has yet to elaborate on the specifics.

The DPJ promised during the election campaign to continue using nuclear energy as long the government can secure the “understanding and trust” of the people.

The reputation of Japan’s nuclear power industry has been battered in recent years by accidents and events that contradict the stream of assurances issued over Japan’s “advanced technology.” The damage includes serious accidents, scandals and coverups by major utilities over the last decade, as well as revelations that most of its nuclear power plants probably won’t be able to withstand a catastrophic quake.

In May, Tokyo Electric Power Co. resumed operating a reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Niigata Prefecture, which is the world’s biggest nuclear power plant. The reactor was shut for several months after a major earthquake hit the area in July 2007 and damaged the plant.

In the runup to the restart, residents and local governments scrutinized Tepco, which had reported a number of incidents, including minor fires, at the facility.

The accidents have taken a toll on nuclear power generation in Japan. The operating capacity rate for the nation’s 53 reactors fell to 60 percent in fiscal 2008, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The rate peaked at 84 percent in fiscal 1998.

Utilities have increased use of thermal power generation, which requires burning coal or other fossil fuels, to cover the shortcomings of nuclear, resulting in the release of more carbon dioxide.

Nevertheless, many experts appear hellbent on pursuing the expansion of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power was, is and will be key in Japan’s battle against climate change,” said Tomoko Murakami, an analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics Japan.

If Japan is aiming to cut emissions by more than 15 percent with the help of nuclear power, the country will need to build at least nine more reactors and raise the operating capacity rate to 90 percent, according to METI.

In June, Aso said Japan would reduce its carbon emissions by 15 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, which corresponds to a cut of 8 percent from 1990 levels.

His Liberal Democratic Party-led government did not seriously consider a proposed 25 percent reduction to be a viable option. “That suggests how difficult the target (set by Hatoyama) is,” said a senior government official who asked not to be named.

The change in government will make things more difficult.

The DPJ announced last week that it formed a ruling coalition with the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party). But the SDP campaigned on a promise to pursue a “withdrawal in stages from nuclear power generation.”

Like the DPJ, the SDP pledged to promote so-called green energy, such as solar and wind power, wining backing from environmental groups, many of which have blasted government red tape for slowing the nation’s uptake of new, cleaner technologies.

The focus now is whether the DPJ will be able to find common ground with the SDP. Some expect the latter to back down, but experts say there should be greater use of green energy.

“From the viewpoint of energy security, Japan should hike efforts to generate renewable energy as it can do so domestically,” said Takao Shiino, counselor at Nomura Research Institute, referring to its dependence on imports for more than 90 percent of energy resources.

But Shiino said it is likely that renewable energy’s role will only be supplementary in the foreseeable future.

“Solar, wind and geothermal . . . all of these are very important. But there is a limit to their role,” he said.

Government data shows that in fiscal 2005, renewable energy sources accounted for only 1 percent of Japan’s overall power mix. Under a scenario for a 20 percent emissions cut, the projected mix would consist of 45 percent nuclear power, 14 percent green energy and the remainder fossil fuels and hydropower generation.

Shinichi Ichikawa, chief market strategist at Credit Suisse in Japan, said that given Hatoyama’s emissions cut pledge, it appears almost inevitable that Japan will increase its reliance on nuclear energy.

“Renewable energy is largely affected by weather conditions, and therefore doubts remain over whether it can be a key electricity source as a stable supply must be ensured at a reasonable cost,” he said.