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Power Plans
Japan Readying for a Nuclear Restart

Well, that didn’t take long. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government revealed a new framework energy strategy on Tuesday that places an emphasis on reviving the country’s nuclear reactors, shut down in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Though the Basic Energy Plan stresses that Japan eventually wants to wean itself off of a reliance on nuclear power, it opens the door for a nuclear restart. The FT reports:

The draft of a new Basic Energy Plan, made public on Tuesday, calls nuclear power an “important baseload electricity source” and effectively reverses a decision made by a previous government in 2012 to close all of Japan’s atomic power plants over the next several decades. […]

The new Basic Plan, which is expected to be approved by Mr Abe’s cabinet by the end of March, could open the door to a broader nuclear revival, possibly even including the construction of new reactors. Though polls show a majority of Japanese remain antagonistic to atomic power after Fukushima, there are pockets of support in some areas that are home to plants, which bring jobs and subsidies.

This won’t be a popular decision in Japan, but it’s one informed by tremendous economic pressure. Pre-Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its power needs. To make up for that now-absent slice of its energy pie, it has had to import coal, oil, and LNG in record quantities. Japan is currently the world’s third-largest importer of oil, second-largest importer of coal, and the largest importer of LNG. These imports aren’t coming cheap, either. Asia pays an enormous premium for LNG: roughly four times the cost of American natural gas benchmarks. For Japan, a country that sources a significant portion of its GDP from energy-intensive manufacturing industries, this cuts especially deep.

Nuclear energy catastrophes are thankfully exceedingly rare, but when things do go wrong, they go very wrong. Energy extraction and usage is all about minimizing risk rather than eliminating it. Nuclear energy’s merits—its zero-carbon emissions and base-load power production—make it a viable and even necessary component of many states’ power mix. But these plants need to be sited strategically (that is, not on major fault lines) and closely monitored. Abe has been intent on reviving Japan’s economy, but his country’s geography demands that he approach the nuclear question cautiously. This is one to watch.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Japan should look into liquid fluoride thorium reactors. Not only is thorium much cheaper and more common than the Uranium 235 necessary for the reactors they have now, but they can’t melt down because they are already melted. Also LFTR’s operate at atmospheric pressure, so explosions are impossible. And finally, thorium can’t be used to build nuclear bombs, and because of this is a negligible security problem.

    • rheddles

      If they were smart they would do a lot more than look into it. They could really steal a march on GE and Westinghouse who are far too wedded to the current technology.

      • Fat_Man

        Fact is that Westinghouse is owned by Toshiba and GE’s nuclear work is a joint venture with Hitachi. They have not neglected Gen IV technologies, of which liquid fluoride is one.

        GE-Hitachi has a standing offer to build its Gen IV integral fast reactor for any solvent utility that wants one.

        Toshiba Westinghouse is building Gen III reactors for existing customers. The Fukishima Daichi reactors were Gen II.

        • rheddles

          For the GE Westinghouse side, I’ll believe it when they build it in the US.

          • Fat_Man

            Don’t hold your breath. With natural gas around $4, and the government controlled by leftists ant-technology greens, shrimp will whistle before another nuclear plant is built in the US.

    • Tim Godfrey

      The reluctance to look at thorium has puzzled me and the stakes are too high to explain it with stubbornness.

      Based on my investigations it appears that thorium reactors are not immune to catastrophic failures. They just have very different ways of failing. This means it will take a lot of time for the industry and the regulators to come up with designs that they are confident will offer a safety level equivalent to what they already have with uranium reactors.

      On top of this you have the irrational fear of nuclear that is not going to go away simply because uranium is replaced with thorium. This means the public relation benefits is small.

      What it means is thorium may be a good idea on paper but the incremental benefits are not large enough to justify a switch from the really well understood uranium based technologies. Countries that are starting from scratch building up their regulatory environment are in a better position to look at thorium designs.

  • lukelea

    “Nuclear energy catastrophes are thankfully exceedingly rare, but when things do go wrong, they go very wrong.”

    I would take issue with that statement. It would be more accurate to say that when things go wrong at a nuclear power plant they trigger tsunamis of radiation hysteria that sweep around the globe, swamping every vestige of rational discourse on the subject. You think I exaggerate? Do a Google search on Chernobyl, easily the worst disaster so far. How many died from radiation poisoning? How many excess cancers have actually been confirmed, or even estimated, in the peer reviewed literature? Hell, even look at the aftereffects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As for Fukushima, a freak accident if ever there was one, you’d think the nuclear fallout was a bigger story than the number drowned or the property damage from the tsunami itelt.

    After we get done with the climate hysteria maybe WRM can tackle radiation hysteria. After all, its the same bunch of hysterics beating the drums in both cases.

    Or maybe I’m all wrong about this. It’s just what I picked up in my casual reading.

    • Fat_Man

      The US media did a sever injustice to the victims of the great 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It was the greatest natural disaster in an advanced industrial country in modern history. About people 18,000 people died, and the economic damage exceeded $200 billion. And all the US media could do was talk about the smallest problem that Japan had.

  • Fat_Man

    The Japanese need to take this step. The government needs to conduct a public saftey campaign about nuclear power. The Germans could also use the education.

  • Andrew Allison

    It would be interesting to see a comparison of the cumulative environmental damage and loss of life associated with nuclear versus fossil fuel power generation, the latter to include extraction.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I wonder why both of the losers of WWII, are the only ones that have fearfully shut down their nuclear reactors? Is it some kind of cultural cowardice, like the Stockholm syndrome?

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