Going green with nuclear power

The Nuclear Safety Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission have issued their annual reports for 2009, in which they call for the promotion of nuclear energy as an important means of fighting global warming. Nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide while operating.

The reports came as the Hatoyama administration is pushing a policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan agreed to slash emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 period, but present levels still exceed those of 1990.

To both reduce CO2 emissions and increase the supply of electricity, the NSC and the AEC call for improving the operation rate of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants, which produce about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity.

In the 1990s, the plants’ average operation rate was around 80 percent. But from 2007 it dropped to around 60 percent. In contrast, nuclear power plants in Europe, North America and South Korea have enjoyed an operation rate of 80 percent to 90 percent throughout the past decade. The safety commission says that a 1 percent improvement in the operation rate would be equivalent to a reduction of some 3 million tons of CO2 annually. It is estimated that if the operation rate returns to 80 percent, Japan will be able to reduce its CO2 emissions by about 5 percent.

But improving the operation rate will not be an easy job. Eighteen — or one third — of Japan’s 54 reactors are more than 30 years old, and one is 40 years old. Another will turn 40 this year. Pipes and reactor components are deteriorating rapidly in nuclear power plants built in the 1960s and ’70s.

The safety commission calls for lengthening the interval between regular checks of nuclear power plants, prolonging the operational life of such plants to more than 40 years and increasing their output by about 5 percent — all steps that increase safety risks. A series of mishaps at nuclear power plants has lowered people’s trust. In its pursuit of an improved operation rate, the nuclear power industry must take every possible step to ensure that safety is not compromised.