UPDATE: US Encourages Japan To Stick With Nuclear Power To Curb Carbon Emissions
U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman says nuclear power necessary for reducing carbon emissions, excessive reliance on fossil fuels
– Welcomes Japan’s decision to create more independent nuclear regulator
– Only eight of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors currently in operation, also expected to go offline by around April
(Adds background in 4th-13th paragraphs, Poneman comments in 14th-15th paragraphs)
By Mitsuru Obe
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
TOKYO (Dow Jones)–As Japan enters another season of power shortages amid a continued freeze on nuclear reactor restarts, the U.S. deputy energy secretary stressed Thursday the need for continued nuclear power use to reduce dependence on fossil fuel and greenhouse emissions.
“If you want to put a meaningful dent in long-term carbon emissions,” a certain level of nuclear power usage is needed, Daniel Poneman said at a Tokyo press conference, citing U.S. academic research.
“To the extent we remain focused on building a low-carbon future, the U.S. view has been that we do view nuclear energy as an important part of our future,” he said.
Japan’s energy policy has become a hotly contested issue since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant triggered by the March 11 disaster. The nation’s worst nuclear disaster has seen a swell of public opposition against nuclear energy. At the same time, with the future energy policy unclear and many reactors offline, Japan’s goals for cutting greenhouse emissions are starting to look increasingly out of reach.
Before the accident, the nation used to generate some 30% of its electricity through nuclear power. Since then, many reactors have been taken offline for regular inspections, while idled reactors that have completed maintenance checks have not been restarted due to disaster-related safety concerns.
This has left only eight out of 54 commercial reactors in operation, reducing the share of nuclear energy to less than 3% of the total electricity supply this winter. These remaining reactors are also set to undergo maintenance by around April.
Japan has been trying to restart the idled reactors that have been retrofitted with new safety features to cope with natural disasters, but has so far been unable to reverse a tide of public opinion against nuclear energy.
According to an opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper last weekend, opponents of nuclear power outnumbered supporters by 57% to 30%, with 77% in favor of a complete phasing out of nuclear power.
To deal with likely power shortages, the government has asked for voluntary power conservation in western Japan between December and March. The move follows mandatory power saving imposed in eastern Japan in the summer that put a significant strain on the activities of Japanese manufacturing industries.
The resulting switch from nuclear to thermal power has led to a sharp increase in fossil fuel imports and a deterioration in Japan’s trade balance. Replacing nuclear power with thermal is expected to boost fuel costs by Y3 trillion a year, according to the government.
The increased fuel costs have also taken a toll on the bottom line of the nation’s utilities, with four out of nine power firms reporting a net loss in the April-September first half.
The greater use of fossil fuels and uncertainty over the future use of nuclear power also make the achievement of Japan’s ambitious emissions goals far less likely. The government has said it still abides by its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from the 1990 level by 2020, a commitment originally made by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama before a U.N. General Assembly meeting in 2009. But how it will achieve this with reduced nuclear power usage is far from clear.
Still, Poneman expressed hope that the situation will improve as Japan overhauls its nuclear industry regulatory framework in April, with the launch of an independent Nuclear Safety Agency under the Environment Ministry, instead of under the industry ministry, a promoter of nuclear power, as is currently the case.
“We strongly support the idea of an independent regulator,” Poneman said, noting a similar development that took place in the United States during the 1970s, with the separation of what is now the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“We believe that a structurally independent regulator is a very important part of the framework of the safety culture that can support the safe and secure operations of nuclear power plants,” he said.
-By Mitsuru Obe, Dow Jones Newswires; +813-6269-2770; firstname.lastname@example.org