Even as problems continue to plague the Fukushima nuclear plant (the head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, announced July 10 that an ongoing radioactive leak was strongly suspected at the site), utility companies and the central government are pushing to restart plants elsewhere in the country. A resource-poor nation, Japan's economic growth potential is limited by demographic decline and its dependence on energy imports. Nuclear power has been a key part of Tokyo's energy diversification and security strategy since the 1970s, but since the Fukushima meltdown in 2011 resulted in the eventual shutdown of all but two of the country's 54 reactors, imports of fossil fuels have risen to compensate. The high cost of continued fuel imports runs counter to Japan's current focus on restoring economic growth.
Power utilities in Japan increased liquefied natural gas imports by 18 percent year-on-year in 2011 and by 5 percent year-on-year in 2012, and according to BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, they consumed 41 percent more fuel oil in 2012 compared to 2011, from 577,000 barrels per day to 811,000 barrels per day. In May 2013 alone, Japan spent $5.4 billion on imports of liquefied natural gas, $11 billion on crude oil (electricity accounts for just under 20 percent of oil product consumption) and nearly $2 billion on coal.
Restarting nuclear power plants could help lessen energy imports. But while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party may be ready to revitalize the country's nuclear power industry, there is still significant opposition to nuclear power generation in several regions of Japan that could constrain efforts to bring nuclear power back. Still, the conditions surrounding the first nuclear power plants that could be brought back online appear to offer the best chance of success, both on the technical and political fronts.
Chance for a Seamless Restart
Two of the 10 reactors, Ohi 3 and 4, are currently in operation and will shut down for routine maintenance in September, meaning that of the 10 applications, only eight would provide additional capacity. The eight new reactors would add 6.5 gigawatts of capacity, and while the exact fuel requirements would vary greatly based on the type of plant, total usage and a variety of other factors, thermal plants of equivalent size could utilize a rough equivalent of 95 million to 112 million barrels of oil per year, 13.4 billion cubic meters to 16.1 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year or 21 million to 28 million metric tons of coal per year. With all 10 reactors online, nuclear power production capacity would be at roughly 20 percent of pre-tsunami levels.
According to a 2012 study by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, crude oil or fuel oil imports would likely see the greatest decline in the event of a decision to restart nine unspecified reactors. However, this might not necessarily be the case at first because the decrease would be highly dependent on the alternative power sources available in the regions where the reactors are located. Still, liquefied natural gas imports would probably be the least affected, with the possible exception being if or when the Sendai reactors come back online.
The application to restart the reactors comes after the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was formed in 2012 following the Fukushima disaster to provide additional oversight and regulation, implemented its new safety standards. The 10 reactors have several similar qualities that could make it easier for them to meet key safety standards. They are all pressurized water reactors, which, under the new guidelines, get a five-year grace period to install the newly required filtering systems. Boiling water reactors like the type that experienced the meltdown in 2011, however, will in theory have to install the new filters before they can restart.
In addition, none of the reactors on the list are on the country's east coast, which has a higher tsunami threat and is more densely populated. They are also all relatively new — the oldest was commissioned in 1985 — which helps because new regulations require that plants not be more than 40 years old.
There several safety measures that the nuclear plants would have to meet before they could restart. For one, they would need to construct a secondary control room that is earthquake resistant and isolated from the reactor. They would also need to ensure better flood control, backup power sources and geological confirmation that the plant does not sit on an active fault line. Any plant on an active fault line would be permanently shut down.
None of the reactors appear to have fully completed all of the planned improvements. They must also wait for the inspections to be completed, which could take some time. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has only three inspection teams, and officials have said safety inspections could take six months per reactor. Furthermore, local government approval is still needed before a reactor can restart.
The anti-nuclear sentiment that took hold after 2011 persists. Protests in Tokyo in March drew crowds of roughly 15,000, and a recent poll by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun found that 59 percent of those surveyed still disapproved of restarting nuclear power plants. Since local approval is required to restart reactors, it is not surprising that the reactors in question are located far from the Tokoku region, which bore the brunt of the fallout from the Fukushima meltdown. Additionally, the governors of some of the prefectures involved are notably pro-nuclear power. Yuichiro Ito, the governor of Kagoshima prefecture, has in the past pledged to restart the reactors, while the governor of Hokkaido prefecture, Harumi Takahashi, has been relatively tame in his rhetoric but has not publicly opposed restarts. Finally, Fukui prefecture Gov. Issei Nishikawa was named to the energy advisory policy board after members opposed to nuclear power were removed in March.
The political and technical constraints facing the first 10 reactors are comparatively slight. Nuclear power remains the most immediate solution to reduce Japan's expensive energy imports, and these reactors could offer the country a chance to slowly bring nuclear power back online. However, even these plants will have to deal with new lengthy safety inspections, and they will likely not restart until 2014 at the earliest — and then only if they do not face major opposition at the local level.