Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Japan Sets Its Sights On Nuclear Power

WSJ.com - Japan Sets Its Sights On Nuclear Power

By SHIGERU SATO
DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
September 13, 2005

TOKYO -- Japan is taking a very long-range look at energy. By the end of this century, under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's road map to 2100, nuclear, hydrogen, solar, wind, and wave power will likely be the main energy sources replacing oil and natural gas.

The plan, which centers on nuclear power, faces obstacles from political and commercial interests. Behind the vision are such risks to Japan's traditional energy supplies as the potential for sustained high oil prices and the possibility that global reserves will be depleted. Also, as a signee of the Kyoto protocol international climate treaty, Japan is trying to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

"Technology is the key to creating a new form of energy security, and, at the same time, a troubleshooter for environmental issues," says Kazuya Ashida, deputy director of general policy at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

Japan's long-term plan is based on the assumption that global oil output will peak in 2050 and natural-gas output will reach its zenith in 2100, Mr. Ashida says. The backbone of Japan's future energy security will be nuclear generation, he says.

Nuclear power should represent at least 30% or 40% of Japan's overall electricity output starting in 2030, the Atomic Energy Commission says in its draft nuclear-policy plan. Producers are forecast to generate a tiny 4.9% of electricity output from oil-fired thermal-power plants in 2030, compared with 28.6% in 1990.

Hajimu Maeda, AEC commissioner, suggests Japan cut its reliance on natural uranium and prepare to switch to recycled nuclear fuel, saying global uranium prices will climb in the long term as China and India embark on their own nuclear-power-plant projects.

The AEC's draft plan encourages use of plutonium-thermal-power generation and development of nuclear-fuel-reprocessing plants. "Pluthermal" generation burns plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX, which is made from nuclear reactors' spent fuel.

The trade ministry has granted three power utilities the use of pluthermal generation at five reactors. By 2011, the industry aims to use it at 16 to 18 reactors.

Meanwhile, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. will enter the final phase of test operations in December to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Commercial operation is slated to begin in May 2007.

Still, "There are challenging issues to tackle before pushing further ahead with nuclear projects," says Satoru Tanaka, quantum engineering professor at the University of Tokyo.

Public mistrust of nuclear energy lingers from a 2002 scandal over falsified inspection data by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the 2004 accident at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama nuclear station.

The slowing growth of electricity demand is another potential deterrent to investment in new nuclear plants and technology, says Mr. Tanaka, who is also the head of the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy.

Japan's electricity demand is set to peak in 2022, due partly to the shrinking population, says the latest study by the independent Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry. Leading power utilities are reluctant to invest heavily in new nuclear-power plants, due in part to the liberalization of the retail electricity market that is under way.

However nuclear its future, Japan needs imported oil and gas to keep its economy pumping in the short term. The government is promoting energy conservation by households and industry to cushion increased hydrocarbon costs.

Also, Japan's shrinking population means it will have much-sought-after spare capacity to refine crude oil into gasoline and other products that will be in demand from China and other importers. To that end, the country is still working to secure supplies abroad, such as with an East Siberian pipeline to ship crude oil to the port of Nakhodka on Russia's Pacific Coast, and a liquefied-natural-gas production project on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Some companies are turning to nonnuclear technologies to secure energy for the future, but it isn't clear yet whether they will be commercially viable.

This month, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Tokyo Electric agreed to jointly make electric vehicles that can run 80 kilometers a day on a single charge. But the companies say the size of demand is unclear, and they have just begun to determine the project's viability.

Mitsubishi Corp. has developed technology to produce pressurized hydrogen through the electrolysis of water, but hasn't yet commercialized it.

Meanwhile, oil refiner Showa Shell Sekiyu KK will start making solar-power panels for household generation at a factory in southern Miyazaki prefecture in 2007.

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