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Saturday, March 31, 2012

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Back to black: Hokkaido Electric Power Co. is using fuel from the Ishikari coal field in central Hokkaido to power this thermal power plant in the town of Naie, eastern Hokkaido. KYODO

Nuke crisis a boon for struggling coal mines


SAPPORO — Hokkaido's coal mines, which for years have struggled to survive amid an influx of cheap imports, have seen demand rebound as utilities grow increasingly dependent on coal-fired power plants during the nuclear crisis.

Many major domestic mines ceased production after the market was flooded with cheap and better burning foreign imports, and as coal was largely replaced by petroleum in power generation.

Mining companies find it too costly to ship coal to other parts of the country, but they continue to mine it for local customers at a time when hefty demand in China, India and other emerging nations is driving up prices.

Among them is Hokkaido's Ishikari coal field, once the biggest coal-producing site in Japan, where output is at an all-time high.

After two nuclear reactors were idled indefinitely at the Tomari power station in Hokkaido, which generates about 40 percent of the prefecture's electricity, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. turned to coal-fired plants to help cover the energy shortfall.

The units were shut down for stress tests the central government ordered for all nuclear reactors nationwide because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Utilities can't restart them without government approval.

Of Japan's 54 commercial reactors, all but one have been idled. The sole survivor, reactor 3 at the Tomari plant, is scheduled to be shut down for an inspection May 5.

As Hokkaido Electric also has been providing electricity to utilities on Honshu since the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant meltdowns, its coal-fired power stations are running at full capacity.

"Roughly 300 trucks brought coal (to the Naie thermal plant) today and sometimes there are even more," said Toru Komatsu, director of the power generation division at the facility in central Hokkaido.

The facility and the nearby Sunagawa thermal plant use coal mined in Hokkaido and are forecast to consume a combined 1.2 million tons in roughly the year through Saturday — exceeding Hokkaido Electric's initial projections by 50 percent.

The Ishikari coal field stretches across several towns and cities in central Hokkaido, including Bibai.

Hokkaido Electric requested that production be cranked up to maximum capacity at Bibai's Nishimukizawa strip mine shortly after the nuclear crisis erupted, according to Takemi Ouchi, president of mine operator Sanbi Mining Co. President.

The strip miners have to remove snow and soil to get to the coal seams.

"We'd like to continue mining coal as long as orders keep coming in," Ouchi said.

But the aging equipment at thermal plants is troubling Hokkaido Electric and local mine operators, especially the No. 1 unit at the Naie plant that was built in 1968.

Boilers, turbines and other equipment have already been worn out by hot gas emissions and steam.

"We know that they are old, but we want them to last a little bit longer," a Hokkaido Electric official said.

Coal-fired power stations last around 40 to 50 years on average, but the utility is planning to conduct large-scale refurbishment to extend that to about 60 years.

"It means we are going into uncharted territory," an official in charge of the refurbishment said.

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