All cost bets off if Big One hits nuke plant

Utilities blind to the ultimate price but also to viable wind, solar power


Last of three parts

Part I: Nuclear doubts spread in wake of Niigata
Part II: Nuclear plants rural Japan’s economic fix

The government presents nuclear power as “a clean, dependable source of electrical power that emits no carbon dioxide during operation” — energy that renewable sources simply can’t match in cost or performance.

But the July 16 magnitude-6.8 earthquake with an epicenter 9 km from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture raises the question: How economical can nuclear power be in a country where worries persist that a strong temblor could someday unleash an atomic catastrophe?

Not very, say critics like Tetsunari Iida of the Tokyo-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

An engineer who worked in the industry before becoming a leading opponent of atomic power, Iida said, “If social costs attributable to accidents and disposal of spent fuel are considered, pursuing energy from renewable sources such as wind is a far more sustainable course.”

Long an object of suspicion, nuclear power is staging a global comeback partly due to its low greenhouse gas emissions.

That is at least the case during the power generation phase itself, and when operations run smoothly. Emissions of carbon dioxide over a reactor’s life in Japan, Sweden and Finland amounted to only a tiny fraction of that from coal, natural gas or even solar photovoltaic plants, according to a comparison cited by the Australian Uranium Association. Other studies have similar findings.

In the case of Japan, carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power generation was a modest 22 grams per kilowatt-hour, compared with 975 grams for coal and 53 grams from solar, according to AUA figures.

The government insists nuclear power is cheaper than the alternatives. “Energy in Japan 2006,” a report by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, puts the cost of generating electricity from Japan’s reactors at ¥5.9 per kwh, compared with the ¥9-¥14 range cited for wind — widely considered the most competitive renewable energy source.

Engineer Iida, however, claims to have seen documents from the electric utilities operating Japan’s reactors revealing that the ¥5.9 figure is artificially low. The cost to generate atomic power often goes well above ¥5.9 but never below, he said.

“Many electric utilities see costs in excess of ¥10,” Iida said, adding he believes administrative expenses, costs from transmitting electricity and a lack of competition among the domestic construction companies that build reactors are not reflected in the cost cited by the government.

Iida also said nuclear power releases more carbon dioxide and costs more money than is immediately obvious, if emissions from fossil fuels used as contingency backups are factored in.

At such times, “Within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, electrical utilities are required to offset carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of electricity. To accomplish that, utilities like Tokyo Electric Power must . . . buy carbon credits from overseas.”

In fact, Tepco more than tripled its crude oil consumption in July to compensate for the quake-triggered closure of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, which is expected to be out of commission for a year. The utility cut its full-year profit forecast by 79 percent.

Be that as it may, Baku Nishio, codirector of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear group, entertains little hope of utilities switching to renewable sources, which he said they view as interlopers.

“They want to use (the nuclear capacity) they’ve already built for as long as possible,” Nishio said. Keeping renewable energy sources out of the picture “allows them to more cheaply recoup the money they’ve invested.”

Indeed, Japan’s nuclear industry would not be viable if not for the generous backing of taxpayers, CNIC argues.

According to the group’s Web site, Japan spends more than any other country on energy research and development, with the lion’s share — some 64 percent — going to nuclear energy. By comparison, it says, only 8 percent is spent on renewable sources, while 12 percent goes to energy efficiency and other items.

CNIC claims private investment in research and development into nuclear power averages well below 10 percent of the government’s roughly ¥500 billion annual nuclear energy budget.

“Without these subsidies, the industry wouldn’t have survived,” the organization said on its Web site. An Agency for Natural Resources and Energy official confirmed that research was not included in the ¥5.9 per kwh cost.

In Iida’s view, however, the largest financial burden related to nuclear energy would be the estimated cost of a catastrophic accident at a plant — it would exceed the annual national budget of some ¥80 trillion, but that’s only the monetary fallout. The ¥80 trillion, he continued, is a risk the currently reported cost levels and insurance arrangements do not begin to address.

Recurring several times in a recent government report on energy supply is the stock phrase “promotion of nuclear energy use and its main precondition, assured safety.”

The intention behind the mantra is clear, but making plants more quake resistant than the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — where shaking at certain locations exceeded design specifications by 2.5 times and incidents of damage occurred by the score — may cost more than Japan is prepared to pay.

A year ago, the government revised its 1981 guidelines for nuclear safety, obliging operators to make plants sturdy enough for quakes above the previous standard of magnitude-6.5. Still no new higher magnitude minimum was specified, and individual utilities were left to determine appropriate levels themselves.

That is cold comfort for anybody seeking guarantees of safety should the Big One hit. Records show that at least one magnitude-7 or greater quake occurs almost yearly, while the Meteorological Agency forecasts a magnitude-8 quake will strike the Tokai region in central Japan “in the near future.”

Despite this threat, there are concerns that making some of Japan’s 55 reactors strong enough for a magnitude-7 quake, let alone a magnitude-8 temblor some 32 times stronger, would be beyond the budgets of their operators.

Proponents of renewable energy thus want the government to replace nuclear power with wind, solar and other sources. In doing so, they cite not just the green credentials of renewable sources but the economic ones as well.

On one hand, a vast addition of renewable energy sources would be needed to replace nuclear capacity and compensate for intermittent down time from bad weather.

But advocates point to studies, including one cited by the British Parliament in 2004, showing wind plants pay for themselves more quickly — and with less energy consumed — than nuclear ones.

A report by Greenpeace France titled “Wind vs. Nuclear 2003” concluded, “At an equal investment, wind power generates five times more jobs and 2.3 times more electricity than nuclear.”

Not surprisingly, such claims are hotly contested by the nuclear industry, and for now Japan is firmly resolved to cover more than 40 percent of its electricity needs with atomic power by 2030, up from about 30 percent today. No more than 4 percent would come from renewable sources other than hydropower. That, Iida said, is due to energy industry inertia.

“Utilities don’t understand the renewable-energy systems that are emergent today. They only know their current system of centralized, monopolistic control,” he said. “Proponents of renewable sources have led the antinuclear effort, so we are viewed as the enemy.”