Restarting Nuclear Power

Restarting Nuclear Power

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has endorsed the restart of the nuclear reactors at Kyushu Electric's Sendai power plant in southern Japan. This is a remarkable turnaround -- considering all of Japan's 48 nuclear reactors were shut down after an earthquake and tsunami led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011 -- with lessons for policymakers here in the U.S.

Japan's decision comes after its newly formed Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) issued a more than 400-page safety report in July showing that Kyushu Electric's safety assessment met the new regulatory standards, followed by a month-long public comment period. The NRA replaced the patchwork of bureaucrats who had been responsible for oversight of the nuclear industry before the accident and is widely viewed as much stricter than the previous regime. The Japanese government has worked hard to restore confidence in the nuclear-power industry, for example by requiring all communities within 30 kilometers of a plant to submit evacuation plans for approval.

Tokyo's green light, however, is the first of many hurdles the nuclear industry must clear to get back on line. The next for Kyushu Electric is to gain consent from the governor of Kagoshima Prefecture and the mayor of Satsumasendai, where the plant is located.

Interestingly, support for the restart of Japan's nuclear reactors runs highest in the communities that host them. Overall, however, the public remains wary. Before the accident, nearly two-thirds of the public supported building new nuclear reactors; a national public poll taken in July and published by the Asahi newspapers found 59 percent opposition to the restart at Sendai.

Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons for Japan to flick the "on" switch for nuclear energy. Since the mothballing of its reactors, the Japanese economy has been in decline, and the country's utility sector has experienced tremendous losses each year. Nuclear power, once 30 percent of Japan's electricity generation, has had to be replaced with other fuels, primarily fossil. Resource-poor Japan has been obliged to depend more on imported natural gas, coal, and oil to meet its electricity needs. This reliance comes at a very heavy price for both Japan and its citizens. Natural-gas prices in Japan hit a record high of $20.125 per million BTU earlier this year, whereas the United States' Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Price has averaged $4.675 through August 2014. Higher import prices for fossil fuels and a weaker yen have led to Japan running trade deficits for the first time in three decades.

Imported fossil fuels generated 88 percent of Japan's electricity last year, compared with 62 percent in 2010, according to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Household consumers have felt the pinch of these expensive imports as their electricity rates have soared rising 19.4 percent, while industrial users were hit with a 28.4 percent rise.

Along with prices, greenhouse-gas emissions are also soaring. They are up 7.4 percent since fiscal year 2010 despite a decline in manufacturing production, the aggressive implementation of efficiency measures in households, and a significant ramp up in renewable energy. Last November, Japan announced that it would target a 3.8 percent emissions cut by 2020 versus 2005 levels. This amounts to a 3 percent rise from the U.N. benchmark year of 1990, rather than the 25 percent cut Tokyo previously promised to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitment. "Given that none of the nuclear reactors is operating, this was unavoidable," Nobuteru Ishihara, Japan's Environment Minister, has said.

The Sendai plant restart is months away if it happens, and uncertainty still surrounds Japan's energy future. But it appears that, almost four years removed from the devastation at Fukushima, Japan is turning the corner and moving to restore public confidence in its nuclear power infrastructure.

The United States is 35 years removed from Three Mile Island, a much less dangerous accident, yet the anti-nuclear backlash it engendered has yet to abate. However, there are some bright spots in the U.S. nuclear-power sector, with five reactors under construction including the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 2 plant, which will be the first unit to come online in America since Watts Bar 1 came online in 1996. Watts Bar 2 should begin operation in the latter part of 2015.

Ironically, Japan appears to be doing a more expeditious job of dispelling public fears in large part by installing a strong, U.S.-style nuclear regulatory system. This suggests that Germany may have acted too hastily in announcing the shutdown of all its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima accident. In any event, let's hope Japan's example inspires the United States to proceed with building new nuclear plants -- and restoring U.S. global leadership in safe nuclear technology.

Derrick Freeman is a senior fellow and director of the Energy Innovation Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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