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Lowball nuclear pitch is fooling no one


Special To The Japan Times

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced the results of a review of energy production costs, which concluded that nuclear will remain the cheapest alternative for Japan over the next 15 years while pointing out that the calculations took into consideration the government’s new safety measures. By 2030, the cost of producing a kilowatt hour of electricity in a nuclear plant is expected to increase from ¥8.9 to ¥10.1. This estimate also incorporates the presumed savings resulting from those new safety measures, which, METI assumes, will reduce the “frequency” of reactor accidents.

In comparison, energy derived from coal will cost ¥12.9 per kilowatt hour and from LNG ¥13.4, though these figures are based on price increases predicted in 2011. More significantly, the cost of solar will rise from ¥12.4 to ¥16, and wind from ¥13.9 to ¥33.1. Geothermal comes in at ¥19.2. METI said these high costs will “affect development” of renewables, implying that there isn’t much of a future for them.

A few days later, Shukan Asahi ran an article assessing these calculations, pointing out that the figure of ¥10.1 per kW/hour for nuclear is, in the ministry’s statement, followed by the word ijō, meaning “at least,” while figures for other energy sources are not. The Asahi suggests that METI is trying to assure deniability because it’s almost certain that nuclear-related costs will increase in the future. According to Kenichi Oshima, professor of environmental economics at Ritsumeikan University, the ¥9.1 trillion needed to clean up the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and pay compensation to locals affected by the accident was not factored into the estimate; nor was the cost of decommissioning not only Fukushima No. 1 but other reactors scheduled to go out of service in the next 15 years, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. hasn’t even set a budget for decommissioning Fukushima, a separate procedure from the cleanup. To put matters into perspective, the estimated amount of radioactive material at Fukushima that needs to be processed is equivalent to the amount of radioactive material that would need to be processed from the normal decommissioning of 54 nuclear reactors.

Decommissioning involves removing the spent fuel from the reactor and then disassembling the containment vessel and tearing down the facility. Tepco maintains it has expertise in this area, based on its decommissioning of a test reactor in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The group that carried out that work says 99 percent of the radiation in the plant was in the fuel rods, so that was the only waste that required special handling.

But Japan still lacks facilities for storing high-level radioactive waste. At present, spent fuel rods are kept on-site at the nuclear plants from which they’re removed, whether these plants are in operation or not, and high-level waste stays radioactive for hundreds of years. Even low-level irradiated waste, such as the discarded containment vessel, has to be isolated for 30 to 50 years. Tokaimura’s decommissioning was supposed to be completed by 2017, but there is still no solution to the waste problem, so the timetable has been extended to 2025.

But this “easy” scenario for decommissioning doesn’t apply to Fukushima, because Tepco doesn’t know exactly how much high-level radioactive material has to be removed — or even where it is. NHK World elicited a frank evaluation of the situation from Naohiro Masuda, the man in charge of decommissioning Fukushima No. 1, on “Newsline,” its English-language news program. Masuda doesn’t believe decommissioning can start before 2020, and betrays doubt as to whether a proper cleanup of the plant “is even possible.”

The public broadcaster went further last week with a documentary in its series “Decommissioning Fukushima,” a process that, under the most favorable circumstances, won’t be completed until 2051.

There are few examples to follow for the people trying to clean up the crippled reactors. It took workers at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant three years to find the radioactive debris after the 1979 meltdown, and another 11 years to remove it, and that was only one reactor. Fukushima has three damaged reactors, within which the radiation is lethal, so Tepco and its affiliates designed a ¥1.5 billion robot to enter the reactor and look around. It got stuck mid-inspection.

NHK shows how Tepco has sought advice from experts in France and South Korea to facilitate the cleanup, and while these consultations yield useful ideas, as the program points out, all accidents are unique, which means cleaning up after them is invariably complicated.

Meanwhile, expenses are accumulating at a rate that makes them difficult to project, but according to a different Shukan Asahi article, Japan’s nuclear industry has set the cost of decommissioning at between ¥55 billion and ¥70 billion per reactor. Germany and the U.K., which have each decommissioned a number of reactors, spent the equivalent of between ¥250 billion and ¥300 billion.

The online magazine Business Journal recently explained the matter in bookkeeping terms. Kansai Electric and other power companies plan to decommission at least five superannuated reactors rather than apply for extensions because their respective output isn’t enough to pay for the government’s new safety measures, which cost about ¥10 billion per reactor. The problem is that once a reactor is shut down permanently, in addition to the cost of decommissioning, the company’s revenue for that plant drops to zero, thus hurting its bottom line even more and making it difficult to borrow money or issue bonds. Consequently, METI is thinking of changing the accounting system so that companies can spread this loss over 10 years, during which they can add a surcharge to every customer’s bill for decommissioning.

Obviously, when METI says nuclear is the cheapest form of energy, they’re not thinking about the user.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Very puzzling why the cost of solar and wind would be expected to increase while in the rest of the world they are becoming cheaper.

    The price of wind seems to assume no price decreases and a 6% rate of inflation. If we extend the expectation of 6% inflation to solar then there seems to be some acknowledgement of price drops but ¥12.4 is roughly double the current price of solar in the US and four times the cost of solar in China.

    Perhaps those advocating nuclear are not only low-balling the future cost of nuclear but also boosting the future cost of renewable energy.

    • Johnny LoveFive

      Nuclear has a smaller footprint overall than solar for generating the same power over the same amount of land.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Make sure you’re including the land used for mining and refining. We’ve got 15,000 uranium mines that need to be cleaned up.

        It may be that nuclear has a smaller footprint than solar, all included. But is that very important?

        Solar is being installed on the tops of buildings, over parking lots, on landfills and brownfields, and on low quality farm and desert land for the most part. It’s not like solar is taking food off our tables or causing us to clear cut our forests.

        Double use of land or using low value land isn’t all that important. What is important is producing our electricity for as low a price as possible and bringing new capacity on line quickly.

        The US installed 4,751 MW of solar PV in 2013 and 6,201 MW in 2014. That’s pretty much the equivalent of building a new Vogtle reactor in one year. And going forward we are almost certain to keep accelerating our installation rate.

        No one is claiming that wind and solar are best in every possible category. But they are number one and two in terms of low cost and rapid deployment.

      • Sparafucile

        Ahhh…. there’s the LIAR Bob Wallace we all know: “We’ve got 15,000 uranium mines that need to be cleaned up.”

      • Bob_Wallace

        “The uranium mining industry began in the 1940s primarily to produce uranium for weapons and later for nuclear fuel. Although there are about 4,000 mines with documented production, a database compiled by EPA, with information provided by other federal, state, and tribal agencies, includes 15,000 mine locations with uranium occurrence in 14 western states. Most of those locations are found in Colorado , Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming, with about 75% of those on federal and tribal lands. The majority of these sites were conventional (open pit and underground) mines.”


      • Sparafucile

        Do you even understand that you’ve just admitted your lie?

  • Bradley Bartz

    “the cost of solar will rise from ¥12.4 to ¥16, and wind from ¥13.9 to ¥33.1.????”

    Really? Wow, as a solar installer this is so far from the mark it is not just laughable, its criminal.

    At least the Japan Times is brave enough (Without Fear or Favor) to actually report and investigate.

    I am so excited by the current “playing down” of the power of renewables. It has removed our competition in Japan. I saw the same thing during the Internet adoption years of the 1990s.

    Go Solar .. Get Paid.

    • Starviking

      They may be factoring in the storage that will be needed once solar and wind take up a larger percentage of national energy generation.

      • Bob_Wallace

        That is not how generating costs are calculated. Were that the case then the cost of nuclear would be even higher.

        Remember, Japan built 25.5 GW of pump-up hydro storage in order to incorporate nuclear on their grids. One never sees that cost added into the cost of electricity coming from nuclear plants.

      • Starviking

        The power companies build those pumped storage plants – not “Japan”. The cost of those plants will be in the bills from the power companies. If renewables suppliers want to use existing storage, then they will have to pay the power companies for access, and if that is not possible – build their own.

      • Bob_Wallace

        I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. The PuHS was built in Japan, not Peru. That makes them “Japan built”.

        Whether they were paid for by power companies or by the Japanese government or by some of each is irrelevant. Storage was built. Obviously Japanese citizens paid for them, either directly through electricity costs or in directly through tax dollars.

        The point is, in order to incorporate a large amount of nuclear on grids storage is required. When the cost of nuclear produced electricity is reported the cost for storage is never included.

      • Sparafucile

        Oh, you mean you’re not going to cite that debunked Lazard report?

        C’mon — it goes perfectly with the rest of your innumeracy.

  • Richard Solomon

    THANKS to the JT for a forthright reporting of this issue. The extent to which METI has low balled the numbers indicates the degree to which it is under the sway of PM Abe and his pro-nuclear power agenda. I wish I could say I am shocked at this kind of deception. But I am not. It goes to prove just how much Abe is under the sway of the nuclear power industry rather than thinking of the welfare of the country and its people.

  • bunkerbuster

    Story says: “the ministry’s statement, followed by the word ijō, meaning “at least,” while figures for other energy sources are not.”
    But the Reuters story the Japan Times story links to says the word “at least” applies to the estimates for all categories.

    More important, perhaps, the ministry’s estimate for nuclear power cost is almost double that for nuclear costs in the U.S., which the IEA estimates at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour, all in including fuel, etc.
    Also, the IEA points to rising costs for solar, estimating those costs at about 20 cents a kilowatt hour now, and rising to 30 cents a kilowatt hour because of “the lower availability/capacity factors.”
    Perhaps cribbing from the Asahi is a mistake.

  • HowmaNoid

    Government propaganda to save face for their continued nuclear lust. Stupid and sad.

  • Sparafucile

    Nice job conflating standard decommissioning with accident cleanup. If you had a chance to offer any journalistic integrity, you blew it with that transparent nonsense.

  • Sparafucile

    “Costs vary from country to country. France recently revealed that nuclear-produced electricity costs them about $0.08/kWh.”

    (Another) LIE. Are you incapable of reading your own citations, troll?

    • Bob_Wallace

      “Production costs from the existing fleet are heading higher over the medium-term,” France’s Cour des Comptes said in a report to parliament published today.

      The report, which updates findings in a January 2012 report, said that in 2012 the Court calculated the cost of production of the current fleet for 2010, which amounted to EUR 49.5 per megawatt-hour.

      Using the same method for the year 2013 the cost was EUR 59.8/MWh, an increase of 20.6 percent over three years.


      EUR 59.8 = $81.37. About $0.08/kWh

      • Sparafucile

        Just as I said.