Business World

Monday 26 September 2016

Japan gets nuclear option back on track as coal imports surge

Stephen Stapczynski and Aaron Clark

Published 02/02/2016 | 02:30

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The restart of the third nuclear reactor in Japan to clear post-Fukushima safety rules just days ago is a small step in the country's quest to re-establish atomic energy as part of its energy mix.

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Kansai Electric Power Co. resumed operations at the No 3 unit of its Takahama plant near the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto last Friday.

The country's 40 other operable reactors remain shut in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that caused a meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Dai-Ichi facility. Twenty-five have applied to restart.

More nuclear-powered electricity generation will help reduce Japan's fuel import bill and lead to lower electricity rates for consumers. The restart will also help the government reach its goal of having nuclear power make up as much as 22pc of the nation's energy needs by 2030.

A total of about 30 to 33 reactors will need to restart to meet the government's target, according to Syusaku Nishikawa, a Tokyo-based analyst at Daiwa Securities.

The restart "underscores the country's commitment to returning to nuclear energy", said Rob Chang, a managing director and head of metals and mining for Canada, who forecasts three reactors will come back online this year, bringing the total to five. Eight will start in 2017 and a total of 37 reactors will be online by 2020, he said.

Japan's power utilities were forced to shut down all atomic reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, driving up its dependence on imported fuels. Kansai Electric said that it began fuelling the Takahama No 4 reactor last weekend.

Japan imported about 85 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) last year, down 3.9pc from the previous year in the first decline since 2009. Thermal coal imports rose to a record.

The country's LNG imports will fall by 2.4 million tons this year and by a further 2.2 million tons in 2017, largely because of the restart of nuclear plants, Energy Aspects, a London-based consultant, said in a report.

Kyushu Electric Power restarted its Sendai No 1 and No 2 units on Japan's southern island of Kyushu in August. They were the first in the nation to clear the Nuclear Regulatory Authority's safety standards, receive local approval and resume operations under the post-Fukushima rules. Shikoku Electric Power's Ikata No 3 facility is slated to begin operating this year after receiving regulatory approval.

Japan's 2015 oil imports fell to the lowest since 1988, reflecting the country's declining population and low economic growth while at the same time its natural gas imports fell for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Yet in the same year that the world agreed to combat climate change, Japan's utilities continued to increase the use of the cheapest but dirtiest fossil fuel, ramping up coal imports.

Continuing a steady decline since the mid-1990s, Japan's crude oil imports last year fell 2.3pc to 3.37 million barrels per day. Similarly, Japan's power generation fell for a fifth straight year in 2015 to 866.26 billion kilowatt hours, the lowest since at least 1998.

The declines reflect deep changes in Japanese society since an asset bubble burst in the 1990s and its population declines and people change the way they consume energy. Young Japanese drive less than their parents, and many new cars are hybrids, cutting oil demand.

"The fall in consumption in Japan is mainly down to slower economic growth," said Jeremy Wilcox, managing director of consultancy Energy Partnership.

"At the same time, increased focus on energy efficiency is really starting to constrain imports," he added. (Bloomberg/additional reporting Reuters)

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