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How Fukushima Has Changed Nuclear Power in Japan

Note: This post was originally published on Earth & Industry

By Silvio Marcacci

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown has profoundly changed the face of nuclear power in Japan, and may result in a complete shift toward alternate sources of energy for the nation.

Before the disaster unfolded, nuclear power provided about a third of Japan’s electricity demand. One year later, only 10 percent of the country’s nuclear fleet is in operation, the government is more heavily involved than ever before, and the national electricity system is struggling to meet demand.

New Government Oversight

As with most countries, the shift away from nuclear is being led by government action. Before Fukushima, Japanese nuclear plants did not have any government limits to the number of years they could operate. In theory, they could run forever.

But the government has now placed 40-year run time limits on all nuclear reactors, with an additional 20 years possible if their safety is confirmed in a series of tests. While this new regulation mirrors most other nuclear nations, it could severely impact Japan.

If the 40-year rule is strictly enforced, the country could face widespread power shortages. When 2010 started, 54 nuclear power reactors were in operation across Japan. But, by 2020, 18 would have to close, and by 2030, 18 more would end operations.

Reactor Restarts?

While the run time limits could cause long-term power shortages, public fears about nuclear safety could cause even more immediate problems. Most nuclear facilities across the country were temporarily idled after Fukushima, pending stress tests by regulatory authorities. The tests simulated severe shocks like last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

This week the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) tentatively authorized the first reactor restarts from these tests, for two reactors at the Ohi nuclear facility. Kansai Electric Power Company, which runs the reactors, said they could withstand an earthquake nearly two times more powerful than the maximum estimated earthquake and a 37-foot high tsunami.

NISA authorization does not mean the reactors can be restarted, however. Further review must be completed by Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission with input from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and government officials and local communities will also have a say before operation resumes. As expected, the possibility of restarting nuclear reactors has spurred unprecedented public anger.

The Ohi stress test results could be a symbolic achievement for the nuclear industry. Other test results are also being compiled and if the Ohi reactors are allowed to go online, could signal other restarts and prevent a total nuclear power shutdown before this year’s summer peak demand season.

Even with the stress tests, the Japanese government is still seeking additional measures to ensure greater utility oversight. The country’s Trade and Industry Minister recently hinted the government may consider nationalizing all nuclear reactors unless utilities assume more responsibility for operational risks and pay higher insurance premiums to pay accident costs.

Higher Costs for Utilities, Customers

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns Fukushima, is being financially supported by the government to avoid bankruptcy from compensation due to victims of the meltdown, cleanup costs, and higher operational expenses. TEPCO recently made the first Fukushima-related compensation payment of $330 million for healthcare costs. One government estimate pegged the total cost of compensation at $58 billion by 2013.

Those higher operational costs have also raised the cost of electricity for customers. TEPCO recently announced it would hike electricity fees for businesses by an average of 17 percent starting in April 2012, and may also raise rates for residential customers as part of restructuring. It hadn’t previously raised rates since the 1980’s.

A Renewable Future?

This combination of nuclear energy safety concerns, not enough electricity to meet demand, and rising electricity costs should create a spike in demand toward renewables and low-carbon energy, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that cut and dry.

In my next post, I’ll examine clean energy’s status and outlook in Japan.

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