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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nuclear power role still said critical


Staff writer

Despite the seriousness of the Fukushima disaster, Japan should continue using nuclear power because there isn't another energy source that can replace it and because the nation has a responsibility to further its global development using the lessons learned from the crisis, says energy expert Kenji Yamaji.

News photo
Kenji Yamaji YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

It is also critical that the government establish a fully independent regulatory authority to help regain public trust in nuclear power, said Yamaji, director general of Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth, a Kyoto-based organization that develops environmental conservation technologies.

"The country has to hand down to the world what it learned from the Fukushima accident, such as safety measures and accident management techniques," Yamaji said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Yamaji, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said the issue of nuclear safety needs to be viewed from a global standpoint, so Japan should not go it alone in abandoning nuclear energy.

"If Japan gives up nuclear power, it will be difficult to produce the related engineers and advanced technologies," he said, meaning Japan would not be able to help other countries deal with nuclear emergencies using the wisdom gleaned from Fukushima.

Boosting the use of renewable energy sources is necessary, but not economically efficient, he warned.

For instance, it is costly to generate large amounts of solar or wind power, which are inherently unstable energy sources because they rely on the weather, Yamaji said.

Critics often say Tokyo would have to use enough solar panels to cover an area the size of the Yamanote Line loop, its main train line, to produce the same amount of electricity generated by a single nuclear reactor.

Yamaji also pointed out that maintaining atomic power will also give Japan more bargaining power when purchasing fuel for thermal generation.

Since the March 11 disasters, Japan has been forced to rely on thermal power, sending prices for liquefied natural gas soaring over the past year. This is partly because Japan has no other choice but to import fossil fuels.

"Nuclear power is effective against global warming and economically efficient . . . and it can maintain stable power output," he said. "It is hard to imagine another energy source that can replace nuclear power."

Yamaji said Japan will probably need to rely on atomic power for 30 to 40 percent of its electricity needs in the long term.

Meanwhile, Yamaji said the Fukushima disaster has shattered public trust in atomic power and reignited the nation's long-buried radiation fears.

"The key (to regaining public trust) will be whether the new nuclear regulatory body can become a trusted authority," he said, adding that giving it complete independence will be crucial.

Yamaji said that the new safety test criteria slapped together for the reactor restart process in Oi were heavily influenced by politics, in the eyes of many.

The government plans to make the new nuclear regulatory body part of the Environment Ministry, but Yamaji — a member of the independent panel set up by the private sector to investigate the Fukushima disaster — said it should be completely independent.

Yamaji also said a major lesson learned from Fukushima is that the government and utilities were relying too much on the so-called nuclear safety myth and had assumed an accident would never occur.

And this is precisely why Tokyo Electric Power Co. was so badly prepared for the Fukushima meltdowns, he said. Its engineers weren't trained well enough to contain such an accident, something that obviously needs to be improved if the quake-prone country is to continue using nuclear power, he said.

As for restarting the nation's idled reactors, especially the two units at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture that the government has been pushing for, Yamaji declined comment because he is not an expert on reactor safety.

However, he said Kansai Electric Power Co. will be in for a really tough summer without them.

Although many say Kepco will be able to generate just enough power to cover peak demand this summer, Yamaji said the key point is how much it can hold in reserve.

Electric utilities usually keep an 8 percent reserve, which means they have 8 percent more power on hand during peak demand. But that will be extremely difficult for Kepco to maintain this year, he said.


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