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Alternative energy sources not to fully cover energy needs of Japan

15:51 | 25.07.2013 | Analytic


25 July 2013. PenzaNews. The operator of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP) – the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – has admitted for the first time that radioactive groundwater has leaked out into the Pacific Ocean on 22 July 2013. However, the company’s spokesman insists the impact on the ocean will be slight as the spread of contaminated water is limited to technical port of the NPP.

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The Japanese authorities expressed serious concern about the situation and asked the operator for immediate action.

“We take the situation very seriously. We need to act promptly to prevent contaminated water from leaking to the ocean,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated.

Commenting on Fukushima disaster cleanup process, spokesman for the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) Hajime Matsukubo pointed to a number of difficulties faced by the operator.

“TEPCO has not been able to establish where Fukushima Daiichi 1-3’s melted cores are. They just pour water to containment vessel as a coolant of reactor core. Also each day about 400 tons of underground water has been flowing into the containment building. This water almost completely filled the tanks, so TEPCO wants to use multiple nuclide removing system ALPS and release water to the sea. However, ALPS has many problems: in particular, it cannot reduce tritium, so some observers are strongly against this plan. TEPCO plans to make a frozen soil wall to prevent groundwater leaking in. However, we do not know if it works well or not,” he said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”

Hajime Matsukubo noted that the process is further complicated by some reasons beyond TEPCO’s control.

“This March, Fukushima Daiichi NPP experienced an extended blackout that disabled the cooling systems of the spent-fuel pools. It turned out that the problem was caused by a short circuit, which presumably happened because of a rat entered a container of a temporary switchboard at the plant,” the expert explained.

In his opinion, TEPCO is struggling with the current situation and cannot manage it.

“We need to know the reason of the accident and its procedure. We still do not know the details of the accident,” he emphasized.

Hajime Matsukubo also added that the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center is strongly against NPP restart.

“At this point, we think we have to exclude nuclear power from our energy mix so we have to depend on thermal power, but in the future, we should account renewable energy as main source,” he explained.

Vera Strukova, researcher at Center for Global Energy Market, the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ERI RAS), is more optimistic about the cleanup at the stricken NPP.

“According to the plan approved by the government, the total cleanup will take 30 to 40 years. Given the scope of the pollution, it is a normal period of time. Creation of the protective cover on Fukushima reactor building was slightly ahead of schedule. On a technical level, the elimination of the disaster consequences is conducted properly, in spite of occasional failures,” said the expert.

In her opinion, the largest question is some slowness and incoherence at the political level.

“Decisions on the stress tests, review of safety standards and limiting the life of nuclear reactors are correct and necessary. However, the Japanese authorities have been unable to determine the further common strategy in time – even in the summer of 2012 the government was at a crossroads and could not decide whether to use nuclear energy or not. Then the cabinet decided to abandon nuclear energy with the gradual withdrawal of nuclear power plants, but at the end of last year, the election resulted in a change of the ruling party and the decision was changed as well,” the ERI RAS researcher reminded.

According to her, it is impossible to reject nuclear power in Japan in the short and medium term.

“Shortly after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the government has announced a policy of active development of the renewable energy sector; some of the politicians even supported the idea to replace all the electricity generated at NPP with renewable electricity. But in reality, Japan had to dramatically increase energy imports. Thus, in 2011, over 35 billion dollars was spent for this purpose, resulting in a trade deficit,” Vera Strukova said.

In her opinion, Japan will get nuclear reactors running again despite the protests.

“After a thorough checking and testing, after the upgrade of equipment, adoption of rigid rules, decommissioning those nuclear power plants, whose term of service comes to an end, NPP will be gradually restarted. The state cannot cope without them. Prior to the accident at Fukushima, the share of nuclear energy in the primary energy production in Japan was 75%. The country was the third in the world in terms of electricity generated by nuclear power, after the United States and France. Nuclear power provided nearly 30% of electricity generation in the country,” said the expert.

However, according to her, Japan will not be able to reach the previous high figures in the coming years even with the restart of NPP.

“According to the latest forecast by ERI RAS, in 2015 the figure for electricity generation in Japan will be 10% with a slight increase in thermal power generation and renewable energy projects. In 2017, it may be 25%,” Vera Strukova added.

In turn, Japanese expert on nuclear policy Tomoko Kurokawa thinks that the early restart of NPP in Japan may be criticized by the public.

“Although the NRA has decided to postpone the examination of the 6 reactors which applied for the resuming, it is said that a couple of the reactors which will be examined would be resumed within this year. The government and the utility companies have to admit to be criticized that it is too soon to resume the reactors just because they may have better safety standards, while it has not been completely made clear what caused the accident and what exactly happened during it,” she noted.

If the authorities have to resume the reactors for the economic and security reasons, they have to explain it to the public and show them the goal about the number of the reactors that each power company needs to resume, she believes.

“First, they have to show their goal and their policy on the resuming. Otherwise, they are just going back to the situation before the Fukushima accident without concrete policies and discussions, which would be the worst,” Tomoko Kurokawa added.

In turn, one of the leading energy experts Justin Dargin thinks that there is a strong possibility that Japan’s nuclear energy sector will have resurgence.

“On Sunday, 21 July 2013, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. Even though polls show that a slim majority of the Japanese electorate is against nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party is fully committed to nuclear energy as an essential part of the Japanese energy mix,” he said.

In his opinion, Japan needs nuclear power to ensure its energy security as it is quite dependent on LNG imports that come to Japan with a high price tag, which is worrisome as Japan is struggling to improve its economic performance.

“At the moment, 48 of Japan’s 50 reactors are idled. And, utilities have requested for 12 nuclear plants to approve for use. Therefore, the election victory of the LDP, shows to a certain degree that the public opinion concerning nuclear energy may be slowly moderating,” Justin Dargin said, adding that he supports the relaunching of nuclear power plants in Japan.

“The reason why is because if we view the merits of nuclear energy on a global level, then it becomes very clear that without nuclear power, it will be very difficult for the world to meet its carbon emissions reduction goals,” he explained.

According to him, Japan is moving ahead with significant investment in solar energy.

“At the moment, solar parks are blooming all over the country. Because of the feed-in tariff promulgated by the government a year ago, Japan is one of the world’s fastest growing consumers of solar energy. Japan is also making a push for offshore wind project development. At the same time, Japan is the world’s largest buyer of LNG and it is likely going to stay in that position for the short-to mid-term as it struggles to develop a sustainable energy mix. Fossil fuels will continue to be dominant as well, as Japan is still a major coal user and oil importer,” the analyst noted.

However, in his opinion, nuclear energy will make a re-emergence in the Japanese energy mix as the memory of the Fukushima disaster fades, and the government adopts strict regulatory guidelines for the nuclear energy sector.

Terry Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, former member of the Advisory Group to the Board of Directors of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) also considers nuclear energy indispensable because wind and solar power will not be able to fully meet the energy needs of the developed economies.

“While the BWRs in Japan have some deficiencies compared to other reactor designs, the risks associated with them are acceptable, provided that steps are taken to ensure that plant barriers to tsunamis are made adequately high,” the expert said.

He added that it would also be important to improve the reliability of back-up energy supplies for accident conditions.

“In the longer term, it would be beneficial if the design were modified so that the spent-fuel pools would be below ground level and inside containment rather than at a high level and outside containment, as at present. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that none of the approximately 20,000 deaths resulting from the tsunami were due to radiation released from the damaged reactors, nor was any sickness caused by the released radiation,” Terry Rogers noted.

He stressed that he supports the re-starting of the Japanese shutdown reactors.

“It would be a serious mistake for Japan to abandon nuclear energy. There has been a significant adverse economic effect in Japan because of the increased use of fossil fuels to compensate for the shutdown reactors. I believe that, in the long run, Japan will need to rely on nuclear energy to the same extent, or even more, than in the past,” the analyst concluded.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster took place in March 2011. It is the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster. There have been numerous leaks of radiation into the atmosphere and sea water. Approximately 140,000 people were evacuated from the 20 km zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Plant.

After the accident, all 50 reactors in Japan were closed for maintenance. Then the government decided to restart two of them in 2012. This sparked a wave of mass protests and contributed to the defeat of the former government in 2012 elections.

According to the media reports, about two-thirds of the population of Japan is against nuclear power. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its leader Shinzo Abe, who plans to restart NPP, has broad support of the citizens as they hope that his monetary policy and structural reforms will contribute to economic growth.

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