Japan returned to the nuclear-energy fold on Tuesday. The reactor at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, in Kagoshima prefecture, was the first to resume operations since government regulators introduced upgraded safety standards in 2013. Following the catastrophic Fukushima accident of March 2011, most of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. So understandably, many people are not cheering the resumption of nuclear power in the country.
Kyushu Electric Power Co. said the reactor should begin generating electricity by the end of the week and resume commercial operations by early September, following inspections. The plant’s second reactor is scheduled to be brought back online later this year.
In July, the industry ministry approved a new target that calls for nuclear power to account for as much as 22% of the nation’s electricity by 2030. (Clean-energy sources will account for up to 24%, according to the program.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that the new safety standards were “at the highest level in world.” But there is much work to be done in bringing all of the reactors up to code. Including Sendai, so far only 5 out of Japan’s 43 operable nuclear reactors have passed the main level of scrutiny by nuclear regulators.
Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear power accounted for around 30% of Japan’s electricity. But with few large-scale domestic energy options left after the reactors were shut down, fossil fuel imports surged to make up the difference. Post-Fukushima Japan has relied on coal, LNG, and oil for nearly 90% of its power needs. Accordingly, electricity prices have increased by 20% or more since the disaster.
Despite this added economic burden across the entire society, however, there is still widespread public dissatisfaction with restarting nuclear power in Japan. Recent surveys have shown a majority favor closing the idled plants permanently. And the nuclear “restart” has been a key factor in driving down Abe’s approval ratings.
Beyond nuclear, one novel long-term solution for Japan’s energy problem could be commercial-scale hydrogen production from seawater, powered by wind turbines. This student-crafted approach (called Jidai, Japanese for “new era”) still needs to be proven feasible. “Of course the concept relies on further cost compression of offshore floating wind, but I really believe the level we are talking about here is possible within the next 15 years,” said Remi Eriksen, CEO of DNV GL, which hosted the student competition. He added that the firm had already received “numerous requests from industry parties who would like to learn more about this project.”
Held to the highest safety standards, nuclear power has a role in Japan’s future, but other approaches should be encouraged in tandem.