THE Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s largest, is a hub of activity. Its 6,619 employees dutifully clock on and off every day. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), its owner, spent ¥606 billion ($5.8 billion) last year maintaining it and its other nuclear plants. Yet Kashiwazaki-Kariwa has not generated a single watt of electricity since 2011, when it was shut down along with the rest of Japan’s nuclear reactors after the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident.

TEPCO has applied to Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) to restart two of the plant’s seven reactors. But even if the regulators approve the request, politics may stymie it. On October 16th voters in Niigata, the prefecture in which Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is located, will elect a new governor. The two leading candidates have not been as vocally opposed to the restart as Hirohiko Izumida, the outgoing governor, but public opinion is strongly against.

Before the disaster, Japan had 54 working reactors. The six at Fukushima Dai-Ichi (pictured) are to be decommissioned. Of the remaining 48, the NRA has received applications to restart 26. It has approved only eight of them so far, and just two reactors are currently operating (see map). A third is closed for maintenance. Local officials—who have some say over restarts—adverse court rulings and other glitches have held up the others. Meanwhile, an anti-nuclear governor is suing to get one of the two working reactors shut down again.

Before the disaster, Japan got 25% of its electricity from nuclear plants. The government of the day was hoping to raise that to 50% by 2020. The present government hopes nuclear power will supply 20-22% of its electricity by 2030. But the slow progress on restarting mothballed plants is calling its plans into question. Nuclear plants currently supply less than 1% of Japan’s electricity; few see that rising beyond 10% by 2030. “Nuclear’s comeback will be modest and brief,” predicts Robert Feldman of Morgan Stanley, a bank.

Concerns about public safety are understandably acute in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. No deaths have been linked to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident (though many fear that cancer rates will increase in future), but at least 150,000 were displaced from the vicinity of the plant, almost all of whom still live in temporary housing. (More than 15,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami that led to the disaster.)

Regulators’ authority has been hugely enhanced since the creation of the NRA in 2012. It has introduced a host of new safety requirements. TEPCO has spent ¥470 billion ($4.6 billion) upgrading Kashiwazaki-Kariwa alone. Employees point to its many fail-safes: a 15-metre-high sea wall to protect it from tsunamis (the main cause of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdown), multiple backup power sources, scores of fire engines and a huge reservoir of cooling water. In one room, instructors watch as trainees respond to simulated emergencies. Today’s involves turbine trouble.

Yet problems remain. Posters at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa encourage workers to adopt a “questioning attitude”—part of an attempt to change a culture of deference to authority. This is “a work in progress”, says Dale Klein, a former head of America’s nuclear regulator who now chairs TEPCO’s safety commission. Mr Izumida argues that evacuation plans for people living close to the plant are inadequate. “It is unclear how we will get the 10,000 buses needed to transport the 440,000 people living in the vicinity of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa,” he says. It doesn’t help that responsibilities in an emergency are not clearly apportioned among the utilities, the central government and municipalities.

Anti-nuclear groups maintain that concerns over the financial health of Japan’s utilities are playing too big a part in the government’s decisions about nuclear power. They maintain that Japan can do without nuclear by boosting the role of renewables. Energy demand is rising only modestly, since the population is shrinking and the country has become far more energy-efficient since the disaster. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an NGO, ranks it as the second most frugal country in the world, after Germany.

But the lack of nuclear power leaves Japan heavily dependent on imported energy, points out Jun Arima of the University of Tokyo. Before the disaster, imported fossil fuels accounted for 64% of the electricity it generated; now that share has risen to 82%, one of the highest among rich countries (see chart). Steady imports require good relations with the Middle East, a combustible region. The expense of importing more natural gas, the main substitute for the lost nuclear capacity, has prompted power prices to soar. That is unpopular with the public, and has contributed to a deteriorating trade balance.

The loss of nuclear generation has environmental consequences, too. Power plants that run on natural gas (and, worse, the old coal-fired plants that have been started up again to make up for the lack of nuclear power) emit far more greenhouse gases. Coal alone accounts for 31% of the country’s total energy mix, compared with 25% in 2010; add in oil and natural gas, and the total contribution of fossil fuels has risen from 61% in 2010 to 85% today. All this makes it highly unlikely that Japan will meet its pledge to cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by 26% by 2030.

Moreover, even if Japan manages to restart a few more of its reactors, many of them are old. If restarting the current fleet is unpopular, building new ones would be toxic to many voters. And then there is the question of what to do with Monju, a fast-breeder reactor (one that generates more fuel than it consumes) which cost $10 billion to build but has generated power for only one hour since its inauguration in 1995 owing to a series of accidents. Even if the government decommissions it, there will be no nuclear-power plants to consume the fuel it has already produced.


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