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Japan's Nuclear Woes

Author: Toni Johnson
March 31, 2011

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Two weeks following Japan's March 11 earthquake, at least four of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are unsalvageable, and radioactive iodine found in the ocean nearby is more than four thousand times the legal limit (Reuters). Ideas for dealing with the reactors include pouring concrete over the entire facility (Bloomberg). Officials are still struggling to learn the extent of the damage--there are concerns the reactors are still leaking--and some experts say it could be months before things are under control. There are calls to widen the evacuation zone, but some evacuated residents are already being turned away from shelters (Telegraph) over radiation fears.

The Japanese government has ordered all nuclear facilities to upgrade their safety procedures (CNN) and is reviewing whether to remove a safety agency from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry because it may be too cozy with the nuclear industry (Nikkei). Similar concerns following the U.S. Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 also led to a restructuring of agencies involved in safety. In an op-ed in the New York Times, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University also voices concerns about the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, calling it a "textbook example of the problem of 'regulatory capture'--in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it."

The earthquake/tsunami not only irreparably damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant (NYT), but many other nuclear and thermal power plants were shut down. In the short term, Japan is bracing for rolling blackouts that could last more than a year. "Until all the lost or suspended generating capacity is replaced, economists say, factories will operate at reduced levels, untold numbers of cars and other products will go unbuilt, and legions of shoppers will cut back their buying--all taking a big toll on Japan's economy," writes the New York Times' David Jolly.

Over the long term, experts say Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) failures have made things difficult for nuclear power in Japan. A 2007 report showed the facility had at least a 10 percent chance of being overrun by a tsunami within a fifty-year span (Reuters), but the company did not change its safety plan. Activists are raising concerns about the Hamaoka plant near Tokyo (Australian) operated by Chubu Electric Power Co., and there are moves to halt construction (AsiaOne) of some new nuclear plants.

With few domestic energy resources, Japan had hoped to increase nuclear power from its current one-third to 50 percent of generation by mid-century. However, nuclear expert Charles Ferguson notes that research shows a potential to provide about two-thirds of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar by mid-century, which could keep nuclear power at its current share.

To help address current power problems, TEPCO and other utilities plan to increase output from thermal power plants, with liquefied natural gas (LNG) expected to make up half of lost generation (LNGWorld), oil to fuel another 30 percent, and the rest by coal.

But importing more energy could roll back Japan's decades-long push for energy security and prove expensive. Oil is over $100 a barrel. LNG already makes up about 40 percent of Japanese power generation and is currently a tight international market pushing up prices. Demand for LNG is expected to reach a new record this year as nations from Europe to Asia look to replace greenhouse-gas intensive coal and possibly close older nuclear power reactors.

"While natural gas seems like the preferred substitute in the wake of the nuclear power shortfall, the nation is likely to witness investments in the area of renewable energy for a sustainable future," say business analyst Datamonitor.

More Analysis

The BBC looks at the fate of TEPCO, the world's fourth largest power company.

Russia, a country with the world's largest gas reserves (Reuters), sees potential in the Japanese gas market to ease "one of Russia's most intractable energy problems: flagging European demand for gas."

"If Tokyo and Berlin retreat from nuclear power, Europe and Japan could again be growth markets [for coal]," writes the Financial Times.

Background

Reuters catalogues the quake's impact on energy and commodities.

This CFR Backgrounder looks the challenges of expanding nuclear power.

This CFR Interactive Guide examines nuclear power.

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