Japan's #2 paper: Phase out nuclear, shift to renewable energy

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“The government has no choice but to change its energy policy in the direction of reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear power and expanding the use of renewable sources.”

These editorials were published in the July 13 edition of Ashi Shimbun, the second most widely read daily newspaper in Japan.

Japan should stop nuclear fuel cycle policy

Since Japan’s first commercial nuclear power plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, started commercial operations in 1966, the country has been producing and accumulating large quantities of spent nuclear fuel.

From now on, even if Japan goes ahead with a policy to break with nuclear power generation, as long as there are operating nuclear power plants, it will continue to produce spent nuclear fuel, which is high-level radioactive waste. How should it be disposed of?

The policy to recycle spent nuclear fuel greatly affects the disposal of nuclear waste. It is the system to extract plutonium by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and use it again as fuel in fast-breeder reactors (FBR).

However, prospects for the operations of two facilities that are pivotal in the nuclear fuel cycle remain uncertain despite the fact that a huge amount of money has been spent on them.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture was originally scheduled to start operations in 1997 but is still in a test-run stage. Because of repeated troubles in the development process, it had to be stopped numerous times. Monju, a prototype FBR in Fukui Prefecture, has been practically shut down since a sodium leak in 1995.

Because reprocessing is making no progress, in Rokkasho, tanks to hold spent fuel sent there from nuclear power plants across Japan are approaching capacity. Because of this, spent fuel is being kept in pools at nuclear power plants across the nation and already, 70 percent of total capacity is being used.

Among Japan’s nuclear energy policies, the nuclear fuel cycle has presented problems particularly from the standpoint of economic efficiency and nuclear nonproliferation. In the discussions carried out when the current outline on nuclear energy policies was decided in 2005, a trial calculation showed that recycling spent nuclear fuel is more costly than burying spent fuel without processing it.

Still, the government stuck to the policy on the grounds that if it is changed, past investments would be wasted and new research would be needed. Furthermore, it was argued that it would undermine trust with local communities that host plants related to the policy.

However, if Japan aims to abolish nuclear power plants, the nuclear fuel cycle plan to put FBRs to practical use by around 2050 would become meaningless. There is no choice but to dump the policy.

In addition to extraction of plutonium, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is designed to reduce the quantities of spent nuclear fuel. But Japan must change the policy based on the assumption that the number of nuclear reactors will decrease and the era of the fast-breeder reactor will never arrive.

If Japan stops the use of plutonium, it would provide the country with a card to strengthen its nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy. Electric power companies have saved more than 2.4 trillion yen (about $30 billion) for reprocessing. Even though it has been shut down, maintenance of Monju costs 50 million yen a day. Those moneys can be used for other purposes.

By changing the nuclear fuel cycle plan that the government has been advancing as a national policy, various problems are expected to arise, such as objections by local communities that have accepted related facilities. But ways to resolve them must be sought.

However, even if the nuclear fuel cycle policy is abandoned, it does not change the fact that there is no place to dispose of radioactive waste.

Japan and many other countries that have nuclear power plants have come up with plans to store such “nuclear garbage” deep under the ground and manage it away from human society. But countries in northern Europe are the only ones that were able to decide where to bury such waste.

We have been using electricity generated by nuclear energy. Thus, the disposal of nuclear waste is a task that our generation should tackle responsibly.

In 1995, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency also said the principle that the disposal of nuclear waste is the responsibility of the current generation. We must not leave the task to the next generation. At least, we must pave the way to dispose of the waste domestically.

Instead of making nuclear power plants, Japan should lead the world by demonstrating passion for the disposal of nuclear waste. It is also necessary to train nuclear energy engineers for that purpose.

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Strong policy support would nurture growth of renewable energy

The most effective way to increase surplus power supply is to conserve energy in all areas. The next best way to do so is to develop renewable energy sources.

In a report published earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations panel of experts, said renewable energy sources could provide up to 77 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050. Renewable sources, like the wind and sun, are hugely abundant and mostly untapped.

The clean energy future in which renewables will play the central role in powering the world, which has been believed to be far away, is now approaching much faster than expected.

Between 1990, when global warming became a major international issue, and 2010, the amount of electricity generated globally by using wind power increased by more than hundredfold.

Global wind power generation capacity now stands at 190 gigawatts, compared with the total installed nuclear power capacity of 370 gigawatts, and is growing by 40 gigawatts every year.

Wind power currently provides 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity supplies and generates 5 percent of the power consumed in the European Union countries.

Behind Germany’s recent decision to phase out all of its nuclear power plants is the fact that the share of renewable energy sources in the country’s total power supply has increased sharply in the past 10 years, from 4 percent to 17 percent.

The biggest renewable energy source in Germany is wind. Wind power is already a practical energy source.

The world’s installed solar power capacity is close to 40 gigawatts, less than wind power, but is growing rapidly. Last year, more than 15 gigawatts of new solar power capacity were added globally, exceeding the total capacity of 15 standard nuclear reactors.

In addition to the traditional photovoltaic technology of converting sunlight directly into electricity, there are solar power systems that use mirrors or lenses to concentrate solar thermal energy onto a small area to produce heat to drive an engine connected to a power generator.

Japan boasts cutting-edge photovoltaic power generation technology using solar panels. Japan developed practical photovoltaic technology ahead of the rest of the world through devoted joint efforts by the public and private sectors.

Until several years ago, Japan led the world in terms of both installed solar power capacity and production of solar cell panels. Now, Japan ranks third in solar power capacity, following Germany and Spain.

In terms of overall renewable energy utilization, however, Japan is lagging far behind the rest of the world.

Renewable sources — wind, solar, biomass (like woody fuel), micro hydro and geothermal energy — currently account for only 1 percent of Japan’s energy supply. The share is 9 percent if large-scale hydroelectric power installations like dams are included.

We must confront the reality of renewable energy use in this country symbolized by the puny 1-percent share. Many experts say renewables couldn’t be a viable substitute for atomic energy.

It is, of course, impossible to immediately replace all nuclear power with renewables. One percent is certainly a very small share, but that doesn’t indicate the limited availability of renewable sources. Instead, the figure underscores the fact that renewables have been receiving little effective policy support so far.

Neither the government nor the electric power industry in Japan has been making serious efforts to accelerate the use of renewable energies, disparaging them as “unreliable” and “power sources that are hard to use because of their propensity to fluctuations in output.”

Behind their smug disregard for renewables was the belief that nuclear power was a dependable and cost-efficient source of electricity that could meet the huge demand.

In 2004, the Resources and Energy Agency estimated the costs of producing electricity by using various energy sources. The estimates said nuclear power could generate electricity at the lowest cost of 5.3 yen per kilowatt, compared with 11.9 yen for ordinary hydraulic power generation, 10.7 yen for oil-burning thermal power generation, 6.2 yen for liquefied natural gas (LNG) thermal, and 5.7 yen for coal thermal.

But the agency’s cost estimation for nuclear power generation didn’t factor in such policy-related expenditures as subsidies to the local communities around nuclear power plants–more than 400 billion yen per reactor in the 10 years until the start of operation–not to mention the costs of dealing with a nuclear accident that could run up to several trillion yen.

It is time for Japan to reinvent its energy policy.

The basic energy supply plan the government worked out last year calls for increasing the share of renewable forms of energy in total primary energy supply to 10 percent by 2020 while envisioning the construction of nine new nuclear reactors.

But it is no longer possible to build new reactors. The government has no choice but to change its energy policy in the direction of reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear power and expanding the use of renewable sources.

The most promising renewable in Japan is wind power. According to a conservative estimate by the Environment Ministry, wind power available in Japan could potentially generate as much electricity as seven to 40 nuclear reactors combined.

But Japan’s installed wind power capacity is still minuscule, partly because wind power resources that can be tapped are concentrated in such regions as Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu. In addition, utilities have been reluctant to accept electricity generated with wind power into the grid.

If Tohoku Electric Power Co., which serves an area blessed with abundant wind power resources, and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which supplies power to a vast market, start integrated operation of their power grids, Tohoku would be a center of wind power generation.

The nation’s wind power capacity would rise rapidly if the grids are enhanced and interconnected for smooth nationwide power transmission.

Japan’s installed photovoltaic power capacity is 3.6 gigawatts. There is solid public support for solar power.

Continuous and effective policy support would significantly accelerate the deployment of solar power. The installation of solar panels doesn’t have to be limited to narrow spaces on roofs.

We could build small-scale solar farms in idle farmland and large solar power plants in wastelands.

Japan is a volcanic country. But the country’s enormous geothermal energy resources–one of the world’s largest–remain mostly untapped.

Japan is also blessed with abundant forest resources, with two-thirds of the national land covered by green mountains. We should make greater use of biomass energy for heating and power generation.

Research in power generation using ocean currents and wave power is also under way in Scotland and other parts of the world. Some experts say after “green energy” the next big thing in power generation is “blue (ocean) energy.”

There are a wide variety of renewable energy sources waiting to be tapped. Japan has enough technological prowess to develop these resources.

It is important to build a society where investment in renewable energy is economically viable. The first thing to do is to introduce a system to require utilities to buy all electricity generated by using renewable sources at fixed prices. Such a system would be a powerful driving force of Japan’s move toward a renewable energy future.

Japan’s nuclear power generation also started from zero. The government promoted nuclear power generation by spending time and money on developing long-term nuclear power plans every five years.

The time has come for the government to promote renewable energy with the same enthusiasm and planning ability it once demonstrated for the development of nuclear power.

We also hope power utilities will pay more attention to the great future potential of renewable energy.

The global markets for businesses related to renewable energy are expanding fast. The government should take steps to stoke growth of the domestic markets for renewable energy technology and products to nurture a new export industry.

As typified by micro hydropower and solar power generation, which is familiar to us, renewable energy is fit for small-scale local power generation, practical even for individuals. Grass-roots efforts should be encouraged to promote renewable energy.

Some experts say reducing nuclear power would make it even more difficult to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Indeed, greater dependence on thermal power generation and rapid growth of renewable energy use could hamper efforts to cut CO2 emissions in the short term.

From the long-term point of view, however, we have no choice but to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, including consumption for purposes other than electricity production, to harmonize our overall energy use with the health of the planet.

It is necessary to find a way to reduce nuclear power generation that is compatible with the efforts to stem global warming.

4 Responses

  1. David Walters July 19, 2011 at 11:19 am |

    Ian, I accept your ‘technological’ criticism. But politics isn’t about following, it’s about leading. If we went by ‘mass sentiment’ where would that lead us. Was there any doubt that after December 7, 1941 99% of the US people were *aggressively* pro-war? The masses are often enough wrong, it’s up to Marxists to dispassionately argue with science and politics what is in the best interests of our class.

    I have no doubt that the working class *in Japan* distrusts the government and capitalists with nuclear energy. But the ‘vanguard’ of this class as expressed through some of it’s main unions, want to shut down nuclear energy TODAY. This in my opinion is ‘reactionary’ even if it’s obviously the passion and emotion speaking after the shock of the quake, tsunami and Fukushima accident that is their guide to taking this position.

    The author of this article is FAR MORE objective within his anti-nuclear conclusions “than the working class” as he knows they can’t do this now.

    Where is the demand to thoroughly nationalize TEPCO? I would think we would want to start with this.

    Secondly, if the solution advocated by “the working class” won’t work…why do we adapt to such a position?

    David

  2. David Walters July 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm |

    I think the problem will be the author of the article itself didn’t post this, Ian did for climateandcapitalism so now I’m wondering if people will discuss it.

    Nothing, at all, is proved by the article, which is the problem. It’s easy to propose renewables without a single dollar, yen as the case maybe, shown how they can possibly replace even the losses from Fukushima. That is the problem Japan is going to fact: replacing 20% of their *on demand* generation with non-fossil power.

  3. R Margolis July 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm |

    While renewables have always had a populist appeal (e.g., the Greeks worte about solar energy when they had a wood shortage, the solar engine designs in the late 19th century during the transition to oil, etc.), they always lose out to the higher energy density source. Our higher populations and greater standards of living require higher energy concentrations. Renewables typically require greater amounts of land and structural material than conventional resources.

    The UAE, while investing some in renewables, is building nuclear plants despite having an abundance of sunshine. No doubt they are aware of the thermodynamic and resource limitations of renewables and how nuclear is a better fit to our civilation’s energy needs.

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