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Sunday, May 6, 2012
New push should be for renewables
With the nation's last operating commercial reactor ceasing operations Saturday, The Japan Times interviewed two energy experts to explore the future of nuclear power in Japan.
Instead of scrambling to restart two idled reactors at the Oi power plant, the government should start capping the amount of spent nuclear fuel and boost use of renewable energies as a means to completely eliminate nuclear power in the long term, according to clean energy expert Tetsunari Iida.
The government and Kansai Electric Power Co.'s current haste to fire up the Oi nuclear plant reactors in Fukui Prefecture is "completely irrational," said Iida, one of 25 members on an industry ministry panel drafting Japan's medium- to long-term energy strategy.
Before resuming operations at any reactors, the government should at the very least set up a new "credible" nuclear regulatory body and await the final reports of state- and Diet-backed panels investigating the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Iida, also executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, told The Japan Times recently.
"There's no way we should restart any reactors until the final reports (on the Fukushima disaster) are released, and we identify the full extent of the problems," he said.
The government had planned to launch a new nuclear industry watchdog in April, but the requisite legislation is still being deliberated at the Diet amid resistance from opposition parties.
"I think we need to establish a social consensus on how many more tons of spent fuel nuclear operators are allowed to generate" when a final disposal method has not even been established yet, said Iida, who was opposed to nuclear power long before the Fukushima disaster erupted last March.
Describing the nation's long-term nuclear fuel cycle as unsustainable, Iida predicted the amount of accumulated spent fuel would reach a maximum capacity of around 20,630 tons in the coming decade if atomic power plants were to keep operating at their normal pace — that is, assuming they are restarted.
Around 14,200 tons of spent nuclear fuel were being stored at various facilities nationwide as of September, and utilities were churning out about 1,000 tons each year until the Fukushima No. 1 plant meltdowns forced them to shut their reactors last March, according to government estimates.
The industry ministry's panel on energy policy has been studying what should be Japan's optimal mix of power sources up to 2030.
Iida said Japan's ratio of renewable energies, such as solar, wind and geothermal power, should be tripled from the present 10 percent to at least 30 percent of the total electricity supply by 2030, and that all nuclear power generation should be phased out by that date.
Nuclear power accounted for about 30 percent Japan's total energy supply before three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power station suffered catastrophic meltdowns triggered by events linked to the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Other countries, most notably Germany, have considerably increased their use of renewable energies over the past decade, according to Iida, who also serves as an energy policy adviser to Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a staunch opponent of restarting idled reactors in the Kansai region.
"We now know the potential of renewable energy. There is no need to return to nuclear power," Iida said.
At the same time, he takes a pragmatic approach toward the nation's energy needs and is not opposed to firing up reactors in the near future, given that constructing green energy facilities will take years, if not decades.
But he firmly opposes a resumption of operations at the Oi plant at present, and accused the government and Kansai Electric of remaining trapped in the "myth" of nuclear safety and of lacking adequate response measures, and even awareness, about potential future disasters.
He said critical safety features still haven't been introduced at the Oi plant, including a high, reinforced seawall to guard against higher-than-predicted tsunami, and a quake-resistant, airtight operations center.
When Iida pointed out the lack of such measures to Kepco officials and asked them about their response plans in the event of a nuclear disaster at Oi, they would only reply that serious accidents would be prevented, he said.
On the possibility of power shortages in Kansai if the utility fails to get its reactors back online by summer, Iida said the projected shortfall of roughly 4.95 million kw could be covered through electricity-saving efforts and alternative energy suppliers.
Kansai Electric will probably also receive support from other utilities facing less-severe supply crunches in their service areas, including Hokuriku Electric Power Co., he suggested.
Still, the high costs of running thermal power plants while their reactor operations remain stalled have severely dented utilities' finances, and they will probably have to raise electricity rates to stave off bankruptcy if their current woes continue, Iida said.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 plant, has already implemented such measures, hiking charges for its large-lot customers in April. The utility also plans to raise fees for household consumers in the future, although this would require special government approval in advance.
In light of the current situation, Iida called on the government to impose a "nuclear power moratorium" for a set period of time, during which the state would cover utilities' soaring fuel costs to ensure an uninterrupted electricity supply and work to vastly improve safety at atomic energy plants.