Posted by Mark Halper

A mountain of savings. Restarting only half of Japan’s nuclear reactors would save the country over $20 billion, the IEEJ says. Above, Mt. Fuji as seen beyond Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

We’ve been delivering regular stories on alternative nuclear for four months here at Weinberg, and we’ve barely said a word about fusion power. It’s been all fission. That was going to change today, as I was preparing a story about some recent fusion developments, and about how I see the fusion future shaping up.

But as they used to say in the quaint old days of radio news bulletins (and in fact they sometimes still do), this just in:  A leading think tank for the Japanese government has declared that the country can slash its power costs by 30 percent by restarting only half of the nuclear power plants closed following the Fukushima meltdowns triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011.

I just had to stop what I was doing to bring you that news from the Tokyo-based Institute of Energy Economics (IEEJ) because there’s no land to watch more than Japan to take the global temperature of the “for versus against” nuclear discussion.

And regular readers will know that we’ve been watching. For a long time following the tragic events surrounding Fukushima, there really was no debate, as the nation stood overwhelmingly against nuclear power. As recently as last March, a poll showed that 80 percent of Japanese opposed nuclear.

MOOD SWING

But some time during the intervening months, the anti-nuclear heat began dropping, with the mercury rising on the “pro” side. In early December, Japan and its 80 percent-opposed-to-nuclear people elected a pro-nuclear government led by new prime minister Shinzo Abe. Abe promptly announced a rethink of the previous government’s intentions to permanently shut nuclear by 2040.

More steam built earlier this month when Japan’s – and the world’s – largest circulation daily newspaper called for a return to nuclear power.

“Revitalizing the Japanese economy will require a stable supply of electricity,” the Yomiuri Shimbun declared in an editorial. “This year will be important in that the energy and nuclear power policy, on which the nation’s fate rests, needs to be drastically reformulated…The government should immediately craft a realistic energy strategy that includes the use of various sources of power generation–including nuclear energy.”

SHOWING THEM THE MONEY

And now, the IEEJ has reinforced that push with some solid economics, pointing out that the country would save 1.8 trillion yen ($20.3 billion) by restarting only half of its nuclear reactors, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Currently only two out of 54 reactors operate, and Japan has had to scramble to fill the gap, since nuclear had provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

That dash has cost the country environmentally, as Japan has fired up fossil fuel plants including coal and liquefied natural gas.

As the IEEJ report makes clear, those measures have also come at an enormous financial cost.

And, Bloomberg adds, “The country paid an estimated 6 trillion yen ($67.7 billion) last year for its liquefied natural gas imports, twice as much as the year before, Yukio Edano, the country’s former trade and industry minister, said at a conference in September.”

The cost combined with the volatilities and geopolitical instabilities associated with fossil fuels confronts Japan with a potential economic catastrophe, IEEJ’s Nobuo Tanaka said last month, as I reported from the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 in Warsaw.

I also suspect that the Japanese public might be losing patience with efficiency measures in which the masses have cut back on electricity use.

The shift back to a pro-nuclear nation is hardly complete. But the country’s regulator is devising toughened safety standards, which it expects to announce in July. After that, watch for more nuclear restarts.

And it behooves Japan to pursue alternative nuclear such as thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and others to help move to a safer, more efficient, and less weapons prone civilian nuclear era that would improve upon the conventional solid fuel, water-cooled reactors that have defined the global industry for some 50 years.

Fusion power could help accomplish that to. I’ll come back to that soon. To borrow another old broadcasting phrase, stay tuned to Weinberg.

Photo: Morio via Wikimedia

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