Oi! Oi! Nuclear is Back!

Prior to the accident at Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear power for around 30% of its generation capacity (with plans to raise that to 50% by 2030), and had a total of 54 active reactors dotted around the country’s coast. For the last few months none have been operational because of ongoing public concern over their safety.

With the summer season now upon us however, demand for electricity for air conditioning will skyrocket leaving the Kansai area in particular with a significant shortfall unless some of the nuclear reactors are restarted. The most likely candidate was the plant at Oi, in Fukui Prefecture, part of Japan’s “Nuclear Alley”. This is a place close to my heart, because when I was last living in Japan it was close to my home!

For weeks we have witnessed a pantomime with the nuclear regulator, plant operator, prefectural governments and the Prime Minister all playing roles. This pantomime slowly conveyed to a largely sceptical public a carefully crafted message: this is safe, and this is inevitable. When the Prime Minister finally announced the restart he framed his argument around the importance of affordable electricity for maintaining the Japanese standard of living.

The Oi reactor was restarted this week and is expected to start to transmit electricity from today.

I have just a few thoughts to share:

Firstly, I think it’s incredible that Japan has to-date survived the loss of 30% of its generation capacity without rolling blackouts. This has been achieved through restarting mothballed thermal plants and encouraging people and businesses to save energy.

Secondly, I note with interest that there is no sunset date for the restarted operation of Oi, something which would seem sensible given that the extra demand will only last until the summer ends and that reaching public consensus over the future of nuclear power in Japan is still far off.

Thirdly, I think geothermal electricity generation could in future play a much larger part in Japan’s energy mix. For this source of electricity Japan’s unstable geology becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo area still have no nuclear plants in operation. Several years ago TEPCO boasted in a TV commercial that 40% of its power came from nuclear plants in Niigata and Fukushima. I didn’t want them looking silly (again), so I took the liberty of updating their ad.

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Electricity Prices a Surprise

Given how often I hear Japanese lamenting the cost of electricity in this country, I was surprised to discover yesterday that the cost of residential electricity in this part of Japan is pretty much the same as it is in South Australia (around 25 cents per kWh). I expected Australian rates to be cheaper in comparison given the following:

  • In Chubu electricity is provided by a regional private monopoly; in SA there is (supposedly) competitive markets for power generation and retailing.
  • Japan has almost no natural energy resources. Australia has an abundance, and exports Liquified Natural Gas and coal to Japan.
  • The only nuclear plant that supplies this region has indefinitely suspended operations following the March 11 Tsunami because it was built in a costal location that is right on top of a fault line.(Yes, I know! What were they thinking?) This means that almost all of Chubu’s electricity is now being generated at resource-intensive thermal power plants.

Why isn’t electricity in SA cheaper? Does the “Tyranny of distance” strike again? (i.e. Is the cost of distributing the stuff much more expensive given SA’s widely disbursed population? ) And how much further will it rise once the carbon tax is implemented? Could we end up paying more for energy in resource-rich SA than they (and currently we) pay in resource-poor Japan?

Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant
Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant - All reactors are currently suspended. Photo source: Wikipedia