Posts Tagged Japan

Nuclear energy in 2017

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on December 16th, 2016

An increasing number of countries are embracing nuclear as one solution to their energy needs. Much progress has been made in 2016, and progress is likely to continue into 2017. However, with the scale of the energy and climate challenges, greater ambition is needed in the nuclear sector. 2017 should be the turning point in which a new, advanced nuclear age begins.

This year the UK finally approved the Hinkley Point C European Pressurised Reactor. Although far from the best design, the first nuclear power plant in a generation is worthy of celebration. The UK continued its support for advanced nuclear too, with the Small Modular Reactor competition launched and further funding for nuclear innovation allocated. In 2017 the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) for the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor will likely be completed and the results of the SMR competition announced. But progress remains slow and the UK should combat this with greater regulatory capacity as well as investment in options which use spent fuel and plutonium as a resource rather than waste.

New nuclear is making more progress across the Atlantic in North America. In the USA, four new reactors are being constructed and many more are planned. The Obama administration gave grants to two emerging reactor designs under its GAIN initiative. It is unclear whether this support will continue in 2017 with President Elect Donald Trump being pro-nuclear, but also pro-fossil fuel.

Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada has been more supportive of nuclear than many had expected when he was elected in 2015. Candu reactors continue to be pursued around the world, but in Canada itself policy has turned towards new designs, including Molten Salt Reactors. Canada has also committed to working on a new long-term energy plan for the future. In 2017 Canada should push ahead with MSRs and ensure its new energy plan recognises the benefits of nuclear power.

Despite this progress in Europe and America, it is in the East that the greatest progress on nuclear power has been achieved. Russia continues to lead the world on fast reactors, with its Beloyarsk reactor turned up to 100% power. In 2017 the Russians should continue this trend and build on their ambitious sodium cooled fast reactor program.

Japan has continued to restart its nuclear power stations in 2016 following the nation-wide shutdown post-Fukushima. As the country begins to benefit from the lower bills and reduced demand on often-imported fossil fuels, this trend should accelerate with Japan re-embracing its nuclear infrastructure.

China has been pushing ahead with all types of energy and all types of nuclear reactors. As air pollution and energy security cause concern, the government is planning a doubling of nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020-21, then up to 150 GWe by 2030. China is working on some of the most advanced reactors in the world, including the molten salt program, and intends to export this expertise more in the coming years.

Similarly India has made great progress with nuclear in 2016. Multiple projects comprising multiple types of reactors are under construction or planning. The prototype fast reactor is expected to go critical in 2017 allowing India to enter the second stage of its 3 stage nuclear power program for Thorium.

2017 looks likely to be a year of global progress on nuclear energy. Leadership in this field is certainly shifting East. The West should take note of this progress, and do more to keep up. The energy security advantages of nuclear are more widely recognised and the commercial rewards on offer from the global nuclear market are growing. Other low-carbon energy sources – renewables and carbon capture and storage – are important and much greater energy efficiency is essential. But with the challenges the world faces in 2017 and for the rest of the century, nuclear is more vital than ever, to provide safe, secure and sustainable energy for all.

Nuclear fear and the recent Japanese Earthquake

Posted by John Lindberg on November 25th, 2016

The last few weeks have been marked by earthquakes, especially if you live around the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. New Zealand and Japan, both countries well accustomed to these violent forces, have been hit by magnitude 7.8 and 7.4 shocks respectively. Whilst the media drew our attention to a couple of cows being stranded in New Zealand, the reaction in the Japanese case was markedly different. If one followed the live broadcasts, or tapped into social media, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe was making an appearance again.

Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, very few would ever take notice of the countless earthquakes that shake Japan, at least from a nuclear perspective. Yes, some would always argue that placing nuclear power plants in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions might not be such a good idea. However, in terms of engineering the Japanese nuclear power stations are shining examples of how to overcome obstacles. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to have struck Japan, but thanks to the engineering of the nuclear power stations, not a single one was damaged by the earthquake itself, and they were all shut down in a safe manner. Placing emergency cooling systems in basements – as was the case at Fukushima – was not a very good idea. It was this oversight in regards to a secondary system that made the Fukushima nuclear power plant vulnerable to tsunamis, and problems like this should no longer occur with stricter regulation.

The earthquake earlier this week only reaffirmed the strength of Japanese engineering, with no reports of damage at any of the nuclear power plants. The reactions, and direct attempts of trying to revitalise the memories of Fukushima, are, however, symptomatic of a wider fear of nuclear. It seems the very coupling of earthquake and Japan reawakens the imagery of Fukushima. Recycling images from the 2011 accident, especially the hydrogen explosions, was common.

The Japanese overreaction after Fukushima has seen the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increase extensively as it shut down all its nuclear power stations and replaced it with coal and gas. A few nuclear power stations has started to come back online, but the costs – both to the environment and in financial terms – has been considerable. At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we hope to see more of the Japanese nuclear power stations to come back online during 2017

However, the global fallout from this has been significant. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations out of fear that similar accidents could happen in there. The replacement was not just the renewables that propelled Germany into international fame and awe, but also lignite, the most polluting of coals. Germany is not alone in this anti-nuclear trend. In 2012 a replacement nuclear power plant in Lithuania was rejected in a referendum, and this weekend the Swiss people will decide the future of nuclear in Switzerland in a referendum. The fear of nuclear severely undermines efforts on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and reducing the detrimental impacts of coal (waste etc). The fear of nuclear and radiation are issues of very high importance, and necessitate changes in how nuclear power is being marketed. This is one of the key challenges moving forward for proponents of nuclear.

Japan needs to return to Nuclear

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on June 9th, 2015

The Japanese nuclear industry has been in the news again as the Japanese government announced greenhouse gas reduction targets which include re-opening the dormant reactors. The government is proposing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2030, from a base year of 2013. Achieving this target would require a power generation mix made up of 20 to 22 percent nuclear energy, with renewable energy making up 22 to 24 percent and fossil fuels making up the rest. Japanese reactors were shut down after the Fukushima accident, which despite provoking fear worldwide, has yet to have been proven to have killed a single person. The aftermath of the shut-downs was a large Japanese push for renewables, but also a massive unavoidable growth of fossil fuel use, to fill the gap left by nuclear. Recently the Japanese government has realised that it is unsustainable – both environmentally and economically – to leave their reactors off. So moves have been made to bring them back into work, with the first re-opening scheduled for August. Now, with emissions targets at stake as well, it must be hoped the public’s concerns can be settled, so that Japan’s nuclear reactors can help save the country from the rising costs and carbon emissions associated with their fossil fuel gap-filler.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/06/03/japan-carbon-idUKL3N0YH1BT20150603

 

Motoyasu Kinoshita NRKno

Moto-yasu Kinoshita speaking in Norway in 2011. Kinoshita hopes to run molten salt fuel tests at Norway’s Halden reactor.

Japan’s fleet of conventional nuclear reactors remains mostly shut following the Fukushima meltdowns two years ago but a significant aspect of it lives on – its high level nuclear waste.

One company has a plan that would use that waste for fuel in an altogether different type of reactor and thus turn Japan’s troubled nuclear past into a revived future.

Tokyo-based Thorium Tech Solution (TTS) wants to combine the reactors’ waste – their spent fuel full of actinides like plutonium – with thorium, the element that many people believe makes a superior alternative nuclear fuel to today’s uranium.

And rather than use the fuel in conventional solid rod form, TTS would put it into a liquid, molten salt form. TTS’ molten salt reactor (MSR) would thus deliver the classic advantages of an MSR, while also helping Japan deal with its nuclear waste. Compared to conventional solid fuel uranium reactors MSRs are safer, cannot melt down, generate less long-lived dangerous and weapons-prone waste, and are more efficient. All the better if they use thorium instead uranium, many believe.

TTS, founded by the late Dr. Kazuo Furukawa, bases its designs on the work of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who built a thorium MSR in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Furukawa started TTS in 2011, soon before his death in December of that year at the age of 84. TTS picked right up where his previous company, ITheMS (International Thorium Energy & Molten Salt Technology Inc.) left off. It aims to build a 160–megawatt electric MSR called a FUJI, and a smaller 7-megawatt model called a miniFUJI (in this case, the word “fuji” implies “the only one” – as in the only solution for a carbon free energy future).

ITheMS, which was run by Japanese politician Keishiro Fukushima with Furukawa as its chief scientist, closed in 2011 after it was unable to secure $300 million it had sought.

MOLTEN IN THE BLOOD

Furukawa, who devoted much of his career to molten salt nuclear research (in the early1980s he worked on an accelerator-drive molten salt system before shifting to the Oak Ridge design), was steeled on making TTS the success that ITheMS was not.

His successors at TTS are working hard to realize that. In a stroke of abject determination, his younger brother Masaaki Furukawa, who is the company’s president, has declared that TTS will build a working prototype by 2018 – not one near the scale of even a miniFUJI, but a tiny primitive version that will produce electricity and prove the concept.

Masaaki Furukawa’s fellow shareholders at TTS include Kazuo Furukawa’s son Kazuro, who is a professor at the Koh Energy Kasokuki higher energy accelerator research group; and chief engineer Moto-yasu Kinoshita.

Kinoshita is also a vice president of the International Thorium Molten Salt Forum and a researcher at the University of Tokyo. We featured him on the Weinberg blog last November from Shanghai, where he was proudly displaying a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography, The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.

Motoyasu Kinoshita Weinberg Book Halper

The source. Kinoshita displays a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography at the       Thorium Energy Conference in Shanghai last November. Weinberg’s MSR design has inspired TTS and other new MSR companies.

I spoke with him  at length this week via Skype, when Kinoshita told me that TTS could begin building commercial FUJIs and miniFUJIs by around 2025.

Obviously, a lot has to happen between now and then, not the least of which will be that TTS has to secure funding.

The company is taking things in stages.

The focus at the moment will require that TTS raise a mere $300,000 – pocket change in the world of nuclear development – to soon test different molten salts. TTS wants to establish which it will use, as it tries to develop a fluid that will not corrode common nickel alloys such as hastelloy and inconel that would form the plumbing in an MSR.

While some competing MSR researchers want to substitute and develop exotic metal replacements, Kinoshita says that TTS is determined to stick with existing materials, an approach he calls “practical and cheaper.”

SEARCHING FOR CHEMISTRY

Instead of material moves, Kinoshita says TTS will apply “chemistry control” to come up with the right recipe of molten salt ingredients that would avoid corroding common alloys.

A typical fluid in MSR designs is a compound known as FLiBe, which is a mixture of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride. Kinoshita notes that it is the fluid that Oak Ridge National Laboratory used in the MSR it built in the 1960s under the direction of Weinberg (from whom the Weinberg Foundation, publisher of this blog, takes its name; “FLiBe” is also the namesake of Huntsville, Ala.-based MSR company Flibe Energy, another Oak Ridge inspired group).

In fact, Oak Ridge included beryllium to help avoid corrosion.

But Kinoshita notes that beryllium has its own problems.

“It is not easy to use beryllium – it’s a controlled material because of its toxicity,” he says.

And perhaps more to the point in TTS’ plans – beryllium does not get along well with plutonium, which is one of the “waste” elements that would help form TTS’ mixed thorium fuel.

So TTS is investigating other solutions, such as adding sodium to FLiBe. It is also considering another molten salt called FLiNaK, which is a combination of sodium, potassium and lithium.

Kinoshita is confident that TTS will be able to raise the $300,000, which he thinks could come from anti-nuclear weapon groups who would back the idea of destroying weapons-linked nuclear waste.

THE NEXT TEST

TTS could wrap up its molten salt tests by “this year or next,” Kinoshita says.

It could then focus on a bigger project, would require about $5 million: Testing the behaviour of nuclear waste’s transuranic elements like neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium.

For that, TTS plans to burn simulated-fuel versions of molten salts in a test reactor. It hopes to use the Halden reactor in Norway – the same place where Norway’s Thor Energy will soon begin irradiating a thorium-plutonium mix, with backing from Westinghouse and others.

Other possible test sites would be the Nuclear Research Institute in the Czech Republic, and Japan’s currently halted Japan Materials Testing Reactor.

Kinoshita envisions about five years of the transuranic tests. Then begins the heavy lifting of building the MSR and overcoming technical challenges that all MSR developers face.

FREEZING HOT

Among the hurdles: molten salts in MSRs tend to solidify when temperature drop to around 460 degrees C.  Molten salt reactors are meant to operate at somewhere between 700 degrees C and 900 degrees C. That’s much higher than conventional reactors, and is a reason why MSRs can make more efficient use of fuel (higher temperatures burn more fuel). One of the great attributes of molten salts is that they don’t boil easily – thus they can flow as they need to in an MSR system at high temperatures.

But if things cool too much, they solidify, and pipes can burst. So-called “freezing accidents” would not pose meltdown type threats associated with extreme accidents in conventional reactors, but they would destroy the reactor.

Another challenge: TTS will have to develop chemistry to separate waste from fuel within its reactor. TTS is using a single fluid approach, unlike the dual fluid approach under development at other MSR projects. In a dual fluid MSR, one fluid produces fissile uranium 233 fuel from fertile thorium, and feeds that into a second fluid where reactions take place. TTS’ single fluid technology will have to apply a still unproven technique for separating the fissile uranium 233 from the fertile thorium and from wastes.

On the other hand, companies developing the two fluid approach will have to overcome materials challenges – in a typical MSR design, the silicon carbide that separates the two molten salt fluids can fail (which is why Furukawa decided on the single fluid approach in the first place).

All told, Kinoshita thinks TTS can start building commercial miniFUJIs and FUJIs by around 2025.

As for the 2018 proof of concept model? That will be tough, but not impossible. Scientific geniuses are welcomed to apply at TTS.

Photos: Kinoshita in Norway, Aksel Kroglund Persson/NRK. Kinoshita with Weinberg book, Mark Halper

Ernest Moniz MITEI JustinKnight

Could he encourage nuclear R&D? President Obama’s nominee for U.S. Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz,     is a pro-nuclear physicist from MIT.

Today calls for a review of the week, and not simply because it’s Friday and the weekend is upon us. Rather, the last seven days have provided several high level endorsements for nuclear power from regions of the world that have been giving it a hard time. Consider these examples:

Japan. One week ago, the Japan Daily Press reported that “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged that nuclear plants that pass the new safety guidelines could restart within the year. This is to ensure maintenance of a stable energy supply.”

It was the latest, and perhaps the strongest indication yet, that Japan will return to nuclear power following the near complete shutdown after the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 forced the evacuation of over 100,000 residents.

Abe won’t have carte blanche to flip the switches on. Each reactor must first pass new, tougher safety measures. Don’t expect anything close to a complete return to pre-Fukushima days, when nuclear provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.  And the anti-nuclear movement has by no means evaporated.  As the JDP noted in a separate article, anti-nuclear protestors are holding weekly rallies in Tokyo.

But the economic and environmental costs of shutting nuclear, as I’ve written several times recently, are mounting. Watch for a significant return by the summer.

Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire yesterday told an international gathering of prominent energy executives in the oil hub of Houston of all places that, as Reuters paraphrased him, “safe and reliable reactors were the best option and dismissed wind and solar energy as less practical.” At the IHS CERAWeek conference, Gates said that nuclear trumps wind or solar because it can supply round-the-clock power. (CERA is the former Cambridge Energy Research Associates founded by Pulitzer Prize winning author and oil maven Daniel Yergin; IHS is the Englewood, Colo. research group that acquired it 2004).

There’s no big surprise here really. Gates is the chairman of TerraPower, the Bellevue, Wash., company that is developing a new type of nuclear reactor meant to replace conventional reactors. TerraPower’s “traveling wave reactor” is a “fast” reactor that breeds its own fuel.

But we haven’t heard publicly from the nuclear Gates for a while. His timing is encouraging, coming amid recent U.S. press reports suggesting doom and gloom for nuclear, and as the country gets ready to install a new Energy Secretary. Speaking of which..

Obama goes nuclear? U.S. President Obama on Monday nominated a pro-nuclear physicist, Ernest Moniz, as the next Energy Secretary. If approved by the U.S. Senate, Moniz would replace the outgoing Steven Chu. Moniz as head of the Department of Energy. Moniz currently heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative.

More MIT. A couple of MIT experts, including one from Moniz’ MITEI,  together wrote a compelling case for nuclear power published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Monday. MITEI principal research scientist Sergey Paltsev, and MIT Sloan School of Management Henry Jacoby said that a nuclear phaseout by 2050 in the U.S. would increase carbon emissions and electricity prices, and would shrink gross domestic product.

The consequences would hold true to varying degrees depending on which regulatory path the U.S. takes in terms of restricting greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote a summary of the scenarios on my CBS SmartPlanet blog (the Jacoby and Patlsev analysis was part of a package of stories on U.S. nuclear, some of which presented an economic case that renewables trump nuclear).

One oversight by Jacoby and Paltsev: They made no mention of alternative nuclear technologies, such as the sort that Gates’ TerraPower is developing, or such as thorium fuel or molten salt reactors. These options could further support the economic and environmental case for nuclear, by providing reactor options that are safer, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive than conventional nuclear.

As Gates said at IHS CERAWeek, the U.S. DOE should increase energy research and development.

“We should put a lot more into innovation, ” he noted. “When we get a carbon tax we should put some of that into innovation.”

I agree Bill. And I know some molten salt researchers and some thorium enthusiasts who might like that idea too.

Photo by Justin Knight is a screen grab from the MITEI website.

Japan’s latest reason to restart nuclear: A record trade deficit

Posted by Mark Halper on February 20th, 2013

This is what Japan’s trade deficit looks like. Liquefied natural gas tankers have been arriving to replace closed nuclear power plants.

Pick your cliché: Double whammy; Vicious circle; Stuffed.

All of them describe the parlous Japanese economy, which looked even worse today when the country reported a January trade deficit caused in large measure by the shutdown of almost all of the nation’s nuclear reactors.

Not just any trade deficit, mind you. In a country long accustomed to running a surplus by selling manufactured goods like cars and electronics to the rest of the world, Japan ran up a record deficit of 1.63 trillion yen ($17.4 billion), Bloomberg reports. A deficit means that more money is leaving the country than is coming in. Rudimentary economic says that’s okay up to a point, after which, it’s not.

Why the gigantic deficit in Japan?

No, Japanese consumers have not suddenly developed a special yen (sorry) to buy Fords or BMWs.

The chief culprit is imported fossil fuels.

In order to fill the electricity gap created by shutting down almost all of its nuclear power plants, Japan has had to purchase huge amounts of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

ROUND AND ROUND WE GO

And here’s your vicious circle, your double whammy: Without nuclear, Japan needs those costly fossil fuels in order to power the factories that build those cars and electronics destined for foreign lands. Nuclear had provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity before the tragic events of the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake prompted the closure of all but two of Japan’s 54 reactors.

Continuing with the circular theme, the growing demand is helping to weaken the yen, making the fossil fuels even more expensive and feeding the trade gap. As Bloomberg wrote, “Weakness in the yen that aids exporters such as Sharp Corp. and Sony Corp. also means the country pays more to import fossil fuels needed as nuclear reactors stand idle after the Fukushima crisis in 2011.” (Recall the irony that some of the imports are arriving via nuclear-powered icebreakers!).

One energy and economic adviser late last year  even warned of a potential “economic crisis or catastrophe” if Japan does not  restart nuclear The adviser, Nobuo Tanaka from Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, warned of a huge deficit, among other hazards. That was a prescient, given today’s report. A leading politician from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party virtually repeated Tanaka’s economic warning a week ago.

The fossil fuels also come at a huge environmental cost. Unlike nuclear plants, fossil fuel generation emits CO2 linked to global warming.

As I’ve noted several times here recently, sentiment is swinging back towards support of nuclear power in Japan, where the Fukushima meltdowns and the human displacement that followed were caused by a disastrously bad engineering decision supported by a management culture impervious to questioning.

SPINNING OUT

But a smart redeployment of existing reactors, followed by development of alternative nuclear technologies like thorium and molten salt reactors among others, marks an opportunity to bring the economy back onto safer ground.

It’s no wonder that newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a restart, as is the country’s largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. A leading economist effectively repeated that call today, in the Bloomberg story:

“The trade deficit means the yen can’t just keep weakening,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute Co. in Tokyo. “Abe will probably restart some nuclear plants after the upper house elections in July as, without them, the costs to the economy are too great.”

Abe faces a difficult act. Current government policy attempts to keep the yen low to boost exports and help the economy recover  (exports actually rose, although imports rose much more, leading to the deficit ) but the weak yen pushes the price of imported fossil fuels sky high.

There’s that vicious circle again. Nuclear power can help the country spin out.

Photo from Shell

Setting out his stall. Hiroyuki Hosoda, the executive acting secreatary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said the economy “will stall” if Japan doesn’t restart nuclear soon.

A senior politician from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week warned of severe economic consequences if Japan does not restart nuclear reactors soon.

“The economy will eventually stall in terms of energy cost,” cautioned Hiroyuki Hosoda, executive acting secretary general of the LDP, in a speech reported by the Kyodo news service in The Mainichi.  “Power companies will face capital deficits in around three years if their reactors remain idled, and the basis of their existence will be affected.”

His remarks echo those we reported recently from Nobuo Tanaka, a global associate with the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ), which advises Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Tanaka warned of potential “economic crisis or catastrophe” if the country fails to embrace nuclear power again.

Japan has shut all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors in the wake of meltdowns triggered when the tragic March 2011 tsunami knocked out poorly cited emergency diesel generators that had powered cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Prior to the shutdown, nuclear power had generated about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. The country has paid a high financial and environmental cost by filling some of the power gap with imported fossil fuels.

The IEEJ recently said that Japan could save $20 billion by simply restarting only half of its idled reactors.

Political and public opinion has been swinging back towards support of nuclear.

Although 80 percent of Japanese said less than a year ago that they opposed nuclear power, the public in December voted in a pro-nuclear government led by the LDP’s Shinzo Abe, who has  announced a review of the previous government’s intentions to completely phase out nuclear by 2040.

Last month, Japan’s (and the world’s) largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, backed a return to nuclear power.

Photo credit: Foreign correspondents club of Japan

 

World energy leaders: Global nuclear worries are easing

Posted by Mark Halper on February 11th, 2013

Sleepless no more. WEC secretary general Christoph Frei says nuclear worries are no longer keeping energy leaders up at night.

Here’s another sign that the global backlash against nuclear power following Japan’s tragic tsunami and earthquake two years ago is easing: World energy leaders now say that concerns over nuclear power are no longer keeping them up at night.

Rather, the top energy issues that are causing them to lose sleep are: uncertainty over climate change; political instability in regions of the world key to traditional energy supplies; energy price volatility; and global recession trends.

That’s according to the World Energy Council (WEC), which reported the shift in its World Energy Issues Monitor, an annual report that assesses the views of international energy leaders. WEC  – a London-based international group of industry, government, NGOs and academia committed to sustainable energy  – launched the 2013 edition at the opening of its World Energy Leaders’ Summit of energy ministers and CEOs last week in New Delhi.

It marks a shift in the anti-nuclear reactions that persisted following the nuclear meltdowns triggered when a tsunami knocked out poorly cited cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in March, 2011.

IT’S THE ECONOMICS 

“The four top insomnia issues are the continued uncertainty towards a future climate framework, the fear of a lack of political stability in the Middle East / North Africa region, the high energy price volatility, as well as the global recessionary context, which has replaced post-Fukushima nuclear that was among the key critical uncertainties,” WEC Secretary General Christoph Frei writes in the report.

The geopolitical and volatility concerns echo views which we reported from Japan recently, where former International Energy Agency head Nobuo Tanaka has warned of a potential economic catastrophe if Japan does not return to nuclear power. Japan has temporarily shut all but two of its nuclear reactors.

Japan is among the countries where nuclear power is regaining support. A recent government advisory group said that even a partial return to nuclear power  could save the country $20.1 billion, new prime minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a nuclear restart, and so is Japan’s largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun.

The international contingent at the WEC shares those sentiments. The press release accompanying the report notes:

“Concerns arising from the current depressed economic outlook have overtaken nuclear energy as one of the top critical issues. While nuclear energy continues to be closely observed and debated, its perceived uncertainty and impact have dropped to pre-Fukushima levels.  This reflects the prudent re-evaluation of nuclear energy in many countries.”

APPENDING PRUDENCE

Allow me to append that observation: To truly carry on with this “prudent re-evaluation,” the industry should make sure to shift nuclear research and development toward alternative technologies including thorium fuel, high temperature reactors such as those that use a molten salt design, fast reactors, fusion and small reactors. These alternatives portend safer and more efficient and cost effective nuclear operations compared to conventional technology.

Fukushima has reaffirmed for us that safe and sound operations are a nuclear must. The meltdowns there were a fluke caused by poor engineering decisions, not by fundamental design flaws. They should never happen again. Alternative nuclear designs can help see to that.

Photo: Jonathan Dewe via Flickr.

The $20 billion case for restarting nuclear in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on January 23rd, 2013

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

Another sign that nuclear is coming back in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on January 16th, 2013

Going nuclear. The headquarters building of Japan – and the world’s – largest circulation newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, where an editorial calls for restarting Japan’s nuclear power.

Want more signs that the public is swinging to supporting nuclear in Japan, the country that shut down almost all of its nuclear plants following the Fukushima disaster two years ago, and where most of the population objected to nuclear less than a year ago?

First, for a quick review. You’ll recall that early last month, the supposedly anti-nuclear Japanese public overwhelmingly elected a Liberal Democratic Party government led by pro-nuclear politician Shinzo Abe.

Of course there were issues other than nuclear power in the election.

But a nuclear pendulum is in motion. Last March a poll showed 80 percent of Japanese people saying “no” to nuclear. Eight months later those folk were installing a nuclear advocate into the top office. Soon after taking office, Abe announced a review of the previous government’s intentions to completely phase out nuclear by 2040. The country is currently operating only 2 of its 54 reactors.

POWER OF THE PRESS

Now comes the latest indicator that the public stance is easing: Japan’s – and the world’s – largest circulation newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, has published a long and strong editorial calling for a return to nuclear. You can read the whole thing on this link. Here’s how it begins:

“Revitalizing the Japanese economy will require a stable supply of electricity. 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.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown his intention to review the “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment” drawn up by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, which set a target of having zero nuclear reactors operating by the end of the 2030s. Abe also expressed support for allowing the construction of new nuclear plants with enhanced safety features. We think his position on these issues is reasonable.

“The government should immediately craft a realistic energy strategy that includes the use of various sources of power generation–including nuclear energy.”

Japan is increasingly realizing as a nation that to stay economically competitive and environmentally sound, it will need nuclear power, which prior to the tragic Fukushima disaster supplied about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Since that time, and with its nuclear shutdowns, it has struggled to fill the energy gap. It has relied on usage cutbacks, efficiency measures (no bad thing) and on CO2-emitting fossil fuels that it imports at great expense (sometimes, as we’ve noted, with the ironic help of nuclear-powered icebreakers leading liquefied natural gas containers from Russia through the Arctic).

The hazardous reliance on fossil fuels came into the spotlight earlier this week when utility Tepco – the company that ran the improperly sited Fukushima reactors that melted down when a tsunami knocked out their cooling systems – announced long term plans to secure an energy supply with what would appear to be coal.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Political, business and thought leaders are growing more outspoken in their advocacy of nuclear for Japan. As we wrote here last month, Nobuo Tanaka, the former head of the International Energy Agency and a Japanese national, warned that a failure to embrace nuclear could lead to economic catastrophe for the nation.

Tanaka, who currently serves as a global associate for energy security and sustainability with Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, is keen for his country to adopt alternative forms of nuclear other than conventional solid uranium, water cooled reactors. He’s particularly interested in fast  breeder reactors.

Japan has a number of other alternative nuclear ideas stirring that could provide more efficient and safer reactors compared to today’s reactors – designs such as the thorium fueled liquid molten salt reactor, for instance.

It has an abundance of expertise in these alternative areas, including  people like Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo – who is also vice president of the International  Thorium Molten-Salt Forum – and Ritsuo Yoshioka, president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum.

Likewise, Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences, is formulating maverick ideas on how to co-manage thorium and the vital rare earth elements with which it typically occurs. Japanese utility Chubu Electric is even investigating the possibility of using a thorium reactor.

Keep an eye on the land of the re-rising nuclear reactor.

Photo: Wikimedia.

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