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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007

Off the nuclear mainstream

On July 16, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck Niigata Prefecture, causing widespread damage and an emergency shutdown of four of the seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. (The remaining three reactors were undergoing regular checks.) The Chuetsu-oki Earthquake touched off a fire and caused considerable damage to equipment at the plant.

Since they require a large amount of cooling water, nuclear power plants must be located on a seacoast. As a result, they are exposed to risks of earthquakes originating under the seafloor.

When seeking official approval of plans to build nuclear power plants, utility companies are required to make sure that the plants are sufficiently quake-resistant. The fact that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant, one of the world's largest and most advanced of its kind, suffered such damage demonstrates that the scale of the quake exceeded designers' expectations.

This means that the quake-level assumption on which power plant design was based was inadequate. The possibility cannot be ruled out that that an unknown number of Japan's 55 nuclear power reactors may have been built on similarly flawed assumptions.

In recent years, nuclear power has received more favorable attention worldwide. For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. government has approved a plan to build a nuclear power plant.

In Sweden, which had decided to phase out nuclear power by 2010 on the basis of a 1980 national referendum, public opinion polls show that the majority of respondents now oppose its abolition. A change of government has led to the shift in public opinion.

As of last March, one-third of the nuclear power reactors in Sweden were shut down due in part to accidents. At present, hydroelectric and nuclear sources each provide 46 percent of the country's power needs; thermal power based on coal, oil and natural gas accounts for only 5 percent of the total.

A surge in the prices of oil and other fossil fuels has contributed to the growing interest in nuclear power. The Japan Business Federation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry agree that nuclear power is the trump card in the battle against global warming.

In late 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, experts said Japan must build 20 more nuclear power stations by 2010. At about that time, however, public resistance to nuclear power was building, as indicated by the overwhelming rejection, in an Aug. 4, 1996, referendum, of a plan to build a nuclear power station at Maki, Niigata Prefecture.

In 2001, the majority of voters in referendums rejected plans for "pluthermal" power generation (which reuses plutonium extracted from spent reactor fuel) at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and for construction of a nuclear power plant at Miyama, Mie Prefecture.

Since 1998, only two nuclear power reactors have gone on stream, with six more scheduled for installation or expansion.

Now that annual growth in electricity demand has slowed to about 1 percent, it is questionable whether a new nuclear power plant with an output of more than 1 million kilowatts could be justified. As a result, power companies, which are obliged to operate under liberalized rules for electric power production, may have little, if any, incentive to build new nuclear power stations or expand existing ones.

Crude oil is expected to be available for exploitation another 40 years. Although oil deposits are unlikely to be entirely depleted during this time, a spike in oil prices is inevitable. If gasoline prices rise to about ¥500 per liter, gasoline-powered automobiles will inevitably disappear.

Alternative fuels most likely will be biofuels such as bio-ethanol and biodiesel fuels — unless their production leads to food shortages and deforestation. Therefore, expect automobiles to run on electricity. One possibility is the fuel cell, which produces electricity from the reaction between hydrogen, obtained during the electrolyzation of water, and an oxidizing agent. Another is an automobile powered by rechargeable batteries.

Natural energies will not be enough to satisfy power needs. The only alternatives are coal-based thermal and nuclear power. One option is to use biofuels only for aircraft and ships and to ban its general use for automobiles.

Even as rising oil prices make nuclear power indispensable as a power source in coming decades, it will not be necessary to build new large-capacity nuclear power stations if the liberalization of electric power production continues amid slower growth in electricity demand.

To preserve nuclear power technology and engineering talent in the meantime, the government should establish a nuclear power-supply public corporation to build nuclear power stations at a steady pace and to manage the wholesaling of the power produced to utilities. By continuing to build nuclear power stations, the government would be able maintain the availability of nuclear power engineers and related industrial technology.

As indicated by the closure of the University of Tokyo's time-honored nuclear engineering department, Japan's nuclear power technology is in decline. Because developing countries in Asia are expected to push the construction of nuclear power stations in the immediate future, Japan needs to maintain its advanced nuclear power technology so that it can help those countries.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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