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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Japan's nuclear conundrum


By NANDAKUMAR JANARDHANAN
Special to The Japan Times

HAYAMA, Kanagawa — Concerns regarding nuclear power in Japan following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are fueling debates on a possible reformulation of the country's energy policy.

While a complete transition from the current energy mix would not make economic sense, the government needs to take into consideration the geographical vulnerabilities of Japan's nuclear power plants and public sentiment against them.

The decision to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear power plant due to growing concerns over the seismic risks of the location is certainly understandable. It could, however, have a rippling effect on the domestic front and the government may face economic challenges if power shortages arise.

Problems could arise if Japan alters its energy policy without first adequately considering its domestic energy potential and the international energy-market scenario. It is important to give with due consideration to three strategic perspectives — energy security, climate security and economic security — when considering the adoption of an "energy-mix minus nuclear."

When considering the complete removal of nuclear power from Japan's energy mix, the most critical question that must be asked is what alternatives are immediately available to make up for the loss of nuclear power. Nuclear power now constitutes more than 13 percent of the total commercially traded primary energy mix and about 30 percent of the total electricity mix in Japan. In terms of energy value, nuclear power generation is currently about 60 million tons of oil, which is close to a third of the total crude oil and three- quarters of the total natural gas that Japan imported in 2009.

A substitution of petroleum sources could easily require the import of a similar amount of oil or gas. This would mean becoming more dependent on overseas energy supplies, increasing Japan's energy bill and making the country more vulnerable to geopolitical risks in the international energy markets.

Renewable energy sources are far less utilized in Japan than fossil fuels so substituting them for nuclear power would require a tremendous investment in generation capacity and storage capacity, which would be a time-consuming process. Hence, any plan to remove nuclear power from the current energy mix must be supported by a clear strategy and a long-term vision.

One of the main reasons for the global nuclear resurgence after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl was the need to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that are widely believed to be contributing to global warming. Conventional fossil fuel sources lacked the low-carbon advantage and renewable sources were of less interest to many countries due to the huge investment requirement and technological limitations. The carbon-emission advantage and relatively low operational cost of nuclear power helped to burnish its image in the post-Chernobyl period as an affordable low-carbon source even among developing economies.

For the signatories of the Kyoto Protocol from the developed world, nuclear power has been seen as a strategic component in the energy mix for the foreseeable future to ensure they can meet their emission-reduction targets. As Japan aims to cut 25 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels, its energy mix and consumption pattern will be key factors in achieving this target.

Japan's plans to progressively reduce its emissions in the future will require making low carbon sources a significant percentage of its energy mix. Hence, any decision to replace nuclear power with alternative energy sources must take climate considerations into account.

A short-term transition from Japan's current energy mix to another with a lower nuclear share could potentially lead to power shortages. The gravity of such shortages would depend on the duration of transition and the reliability of new sources that would be incorporated into the new energy mix. Hence it is important for policymakers to consider the economic security challenges that may arise due to power shortages when considering changes in the country's energy mix.

A severe power shortage could affect domestic industries and have a long-term impact on the country's economy and its people. The strenuous efforts that the people of Japan have made to conserve energy in the wake of the March 11 nuclear accident deserves global admiration. But because modern life is depends so heavily on energy, a long-term power shortage could present a major challenge from a lifestyle perspective.

Despite the fear that even the most advanced nuclear-power technologies are susceptible to human error or unprecedented natural disasters, many countries will continue to rely on nuclear power because its use is not a simple "yes or no" matter.

Great care will be required to reform the Japan's domestic energy policy in a manner that will ensure the country's short-term and long-term economic activities are not negatively impacted during the energy transition period.

Perhaps the least disruptive approach would be to implement a slow transition in which nuclear power is gradually replaced with clean energy sources and technologies.

Nandakumar Janardhanan is an energy policy researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. He can be reached at nanduj123@gmail.com


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