Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy in Japan

Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy in Japan

On July 12, 2021, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) presented an estimate that the cost of solar power generation in 2030 will be in the upper 8 yen to lower 11 yen per kilowatt hour, cheaper than nuclear power (upper 11 yen or more). This is due to the fact that the cost of solar panels and other products is falling and energy conversion efficiency is increasing. This is the first time that a reversal of this estimate has been made, and it became a major topic of conversation, with people saying that it would change the basic energy policy of Japan.

However, commercial solar power generation, whose output is greatly affected by the weather, needs to be adjusted by thermal power generation to compensate for the fluctuations. Based on this reflection, the cost was added in the second round of calculations, and the figures were recalculated to be closer to the actual situation. As a result, the cost per kilowatt hour for commercial solar power was the highest at 18.9 yen, followed by 18.5 yen for onshore wind power and 14.4 yen for nuclear power. On the other hand, the cost of coal-fired power generation and liquefied natural gas (LNG)-fired power generation were 13.9 yen and 11.2 yen, respectively.

So nuclear power is NOT the cheapest in Japan. The national government finally admitted. But should we take it at face value?

Current Situation of Nuclear Energy Usage in Japan

Percentage of total electricity generated in Japan by power source in 2020
Percentage of total electricity generated in Japan by power source in 2020

Coal is mainly imported from Australia and Asia, and since it is not dependent on the Middle East, it does not have the same geopolitical risks as oil. Only 2% of oil is now used for generating electricity. Similarly, for natural gas (LNG), Australia is the leader as the biggest trading partner for Japan, followed by Malaysia and Qatar.

Before the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, Japan had 54 nuclear power plants and around 30% of the electricity used in Japan was supplied by nuclear power. However, the accident at TEPCO's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant led to a growing sense of distrust and anxiety about nuclear power, and the position of nuclear power plants changed dramatically.

As of March 2021, 10 years after the accident, only 9 nuclear power plants have been restarted with the consent of local communities: Ohi (Kansai Electric Power Co.), Takahama (Kansai Electric Power Co.), Genkai (Kyushu Electric Power Co.), Kawauchi (Kyushu Electric Power Co.), and Ikata (Shikoku Electric Power Co.). (See the locations of the nuclear power plants in Japan) On the other hand, the number of nuclear reactors that have been decided to be decommissioned since the 2011 earthquake has risen to 21.

With the currently running 9 nuclear power plants, nuclear power accounts for only 4.3% of the power supply mix, far below the target of 20-22%.

Increase the use of nuclear power, which does not emit CO2 during power generation

Nuclear power, which does not emit CO2 during power generation, is said to be of great importance for Japan's decarbonization. In addition, nuclear power has a high fuel reserve and can produce a large amount of energy with a small amount of fuel, making it a valuable energy source for Japan, which does not have any fossil fuels and can contribute to increasing its energy self-sufficiency.

Despite this, the public's trust in nuclear energy has been lost since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the operating rate of nuclear power generation has fallen significantly and has not returned.

According to a poll by the Japan Atomic Energy Cultural Foundation, the number of respondents who consider nuclear power "unreliable" increased by up to 20% from 10.2% in 2010 to 30.0% in 2015 (24.4% in 2019). The number of respondents who believe that nuclear power is "necessary" decreased by up to nearly 20% from 35.4% in 2010 to 14.8% in 2013. (24.3% in 2019). Public opinion polls conducted by media outlets continue to show that the number of respondents who are "against" the restart of nuclear power plants exceeds the number of those who are "for" it, and overall, the public's assessment of nuclear power plants continues to be stagnant.

Therefore, the government's current policy is that in order to restart nuclear power plants, it must once again seek the public's understanding based on the basic premise of safety.

But is it really safe? And is it really not emitting CO2 at all?

Japan suffers from some of the world's greatest natural disasters

Japan's share of disasters in the world as a whole is very high compared to its land area of 0.25% of the world's total, including 20.8% of earthquakes of magnitude 6 or higher and 7.0% of active volcanoes. (See the chart here.)

An announcement was made by the Seismological Society of Japan that there is more than an 80% chance that an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 8 will occur in the Tonankai within 30 years. Despite this, they are communicating in a way that makes no sense, such as "there are no active faults directly under the plant, so we are fine."

Many scholars believe that it is impossible to have more than 50 nuclear power plants in a place like Japan, where multiple plates are mixed and earthquakes occur frequently, in a normal way.

The idea that nuclear power plants emit no CO2 is a crock

As for the CO2 emissions from nuclear power plants, if you only look at the partial process, it looks like no CO2 is emitted. But the mining, refining, enriching, and transporting of uranium (mostly from Australia and Canada), the construction of nuclear power plants, the decades of cold storage, and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants that takes more than a decade. When you include all of these, unfortunately, the argument that "no CO2 is produced at all" is a big lie.

The lie that nuclear power is the cheapest way to generate electricity

"Thermal power generation is carbon-intensive, and renewable energy generation requires large sites and is still expensive at present. While reducing our dependence on nuclear power in the long term, at least in the short term, it is a realistic option to aim for a certain level of restart of nuclear power plants," said Narumi Shibata, Program Officer of the Asia-Pacific Initiative, in her article, "Why we need to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear power in Japan now", but is it really so?

General costs related to power generation (depreciation, maintenance, fuel costs, etc.) are included in the cost of electricity and are borne by consumers through electricity rates. The cost of nuclear power generation consists of 4 major components: (1) direct costs of power generation (fuel, depreciation, maintenance, etc.) and (2) back-end costs (spent fuel reprocessing, radioactive waste disposal, and decommissioning costs). (3) the financial input from the government (fiscal expenditure: development cost, site location cost) and (4) the cost of damage and compensation for damage caused by the accident.

Four major costs to be included for nuclear power generation

  1. direct costs of power generation (fuel, depreciation, maintenance, etc.)
  2. back-end costs (spent fuel reprocessing, radioactive waste disposal, and decommissioning costs)
  3. the financial input from the government (fiscal expenditure: development cost, site location cost)
  4. the cost of damage and compensation for damage caused by the accident

If the actual damage and compensation costs associated with the nuclear accident are included…

In the 10 years since the accident at In March, 2021, TEPCO's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the cost of decommissioning the plant, compensating victims, and decontaminating contaminated areas has risen to at least 13.3 trillion yen, the Tokyo Shimbun has learned. The government estimates that the total cost of the accident will be 21.5 trillion yen, but there is a strong possibility that the cost will exceed the estimate due to difficulties in decommissioning the reactors.

According to the Japan Center for Economic Research, the actual cost of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear disaster is likely to be between 35 and 80 trillion yen over 40 years. If this cost is included, the cost of generating electricity from nuclear power plants will jump significantly.

New Calculation Made

The actual cost of (4) above are included in the cost of power generation from nuclear power plants. As a result, the cost of electricity generated by nuclear power plants exceeded 11 yen per kilowatt according to the government's estimate this year, as mentioned above.

However, there are still major problems here: the cost estimates in (4) are vague; the construction costs of the nuclear power plants are those of 2014; and, most importantly, the denominator is the amount of electricity generated by 43 nuclear power plants other than the ones that were decommissioned at the time. In fact, as mentioned above, the number of nuclear power plants that have been decommissioned as of 2020 has increased to a total of 24. If we include new nuclear power plants in the future, there will be 60 units. If we subtract the 24 reactors from the total, we will have to include the 36 reactors in the denominator.

Nuclear Energy Is More Costly Than Ever

Dr. Suwa, a professor at Kyoto Women's University's Faculty of Modern Sociology, has published the results of her calculations with such modifications. Please look at the table below. There are two minimum and maximum costs in the government's estimation, and three types in the private sector's estimation.

Estimated damage by the government (low)12.5
Estimated private sector damage (a: low)13.9
Estimated private sector damage (a: high)15.6
Government estimate of probable damage (high)18
Estimated private sector damage (b: low)18.5
Estimated private sector damage (b: high)20.3
Actual cost of Nuclear Power Energy Per kWh

In other words, the cost of power generation has increased significantly, and even the lowest estimate exceeds that of natural gas (10.4) and coal (12.1).

And these figures are based on operating at 64% for 40 years. It does not account for natural disasters or shutdowns due to breakdowns. In a country like Japan where there are many natural disasters, not to mention earthquakes and tsunamis, there is no guarantee that the plant will not be shut down for 40 years. Moreover, since the durability of a nuclear power plant is 40 years, the number of nuclear power plants that can be operated by 2030 will be half of what it is today.

In addition, the cost of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is increasing. Japan does not currently have a reprocessing facility that is operating properly. The only one that holds promise is the reprocessing plant of Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture, which is currently under construction. Construction of the plant started in 1993, but the completion date has been delayed 25 times due to problems and the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The government's estimate of the cost of reprocessing is 12 trillion yen, but as of June, the total cost of the reprocessing plant was 14.44 trillion yen, up 500 billion yen from the previous year. The project cost will continue to grow due to delays in the review process.

In fact, my cousin's husband works as an engineer at JNFL's Rokkasho Village. He has been working there for more than 10 years now, but the staff around him are demoralized and no one expects the project to be completed.

Pros About Nuclear Energy

Various types of power generation
Various types of power generation

Maybe there is a country or region like Japan that can generate power efficiently with less disaster, less location and less reprocessing cost. However, Japan is not considered a very efficient source of power generation considering the various costs involved. Furthermore, as the cost of solar energy declines and the technology of smart grids and energy storage improves, the benefits of nuclear power are diminishing in terms of CO2 emissions.

"I believe that nuclear power plants need to be restarted. As long as there are nuclear power plants, there is a possibility that accidents will occur. If we say that nuclear power plants are useless because of accidents, we will be denying all vehicles. Humanity has developed through technological innovation. We need to learn from the Fukushima accident and aim for a higher level. We need nuclear power plants until we reach a technology where Japan's energy needs can be met by renewable energy sources at any time."

The above is what Governor Yoshihiro Murai said when he decided to restart the No. 2 reactor at Tohoku Electric Power Company's Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in November 2020. This is what the proponents of nuclear power might say.

So I can raise this point as one of the pros for nuclear power generation. Below is the list of pros.

  • Local financial benefits from attracting nuclear power plants
  • Low (but not zero!) CO2 emissions
  • Enormous cost we've spent so far for R&D and its nuclear reactors (we've built 54 nuclear reactors)

However, the financial support to the local community and the creation of jobs by attracting nuclear power plants are specific to that region, and are not positive from a macro perspective for Japan as a whole. Also, it is a lie to say that there are no CO2 emissions from nuclear power, but in fact there are many for various reasons as mentioned above. As for research and development, there is no reason why it cannot continue without nuclear power. It is possible to continue research and development at research facilities such as Tokai-mura or universities.

Cos About Nuclear Energy

Let's take a look at the opposing views to those in favor. The summary is as follows.

  • High cost (more expensive than oil, coal, natural gas!) Also, the method of calculating the cost is unclear (could be the highest!)
  • Extensive impact (physical and psychological damage) in the event of an accident (still 36,000 evacuees in Fukushima)
  • No prospect of a reprocessing plant (postponed 25 times)

The first is the cost. As mentioned above, the cost of dealing with the Fukushima disaster is estimated at 21 trillion yen by the government, but 13 trillion yen has already been spent in the last 10 years. The decommissioning process has also been delayed significantly. It is said that it will take 30 to 40 years to decommission the reactors, but there is a high probability that it will take longer. If this happens, the 21 trillion yen will surely not be enough.

Secondly, in the event of an accident, the damage is not only material but also psychological, as represented by the evacuees. The number of people still living in temporary housing alone is more than 36,000. Many more have lost their homes and are living in other places outside Fukushima. It is unlikely that they will ever be able to live in their hometown again. The collapse of communities and other psychological damage cannot be recovered with money. It is insane that there are more than 50 nuclear power plants as of now and more new ones are being built in a place like Japan where natural disasters are so common.

The Japanese government is trying to make us forget the accident at Fukushima, which is a "level 7" accident, the highest in the disaster category as worst as Chernobyl. The Three Mile accident in 1979 was a "level 5" accident. 

Forgetful Japanese

Like the opinion poll conducted recently, the sentiment against nuclear power energy is decreasing which was the highest right after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Why is that? Sociologist Shinji Miyadai points out that the problem is the Japanese national character of "forgetting after a festival."

"Like the Emperor's change of the year, forgetting the past after everyone has come together for a festival is something that Japan has been doing for hundreds of years. This is not the case in Europe, America, and many other countries. A festival is a festival, but apart from that, there is religion. There are the eyes of man and the eyes of God, and it is the eyes of man that are forgotten in a festival. In the West, there is a way of remembering history without forgetting, because people forget but gods do not forget. In Japan, we forget the past completely by forgetting people's eyes at festivals."

99% chance that an earthquake of around M7.5 will occur within 30 years

In addition, the Cabinet Office website describes the danger of future earthquakes as follows. "For example, the average interval between earthquakes off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture is about 37 years, and an earthquake occurred about 30 years ago. Therefore, the probability of an earthquake of around M7.5 occurring within 10 years is about 60%, and within 30 years, it reaches 99%. The probability of an earthquake of seismic intensity more than 6 within the next 30 years is 26% or higher for the entire Pacific coast. This shows just how imminent the danger of earthquakes is."

All nuclear power plants in Japan are located along the coast. If we can't be 100% sure that they are safe, then there is no other way but to eliminate them immediately.

Increase renewable energy by utilizing abandoned farmland

abandoned farmland
turning abandoned farmland into a solar power energy spot

There are 420,000 hectares of abandoned farmland in Japan as of 2015, a number that continues to increase every year. According to Kankyo Business, if 170,000 hectares, less than half of 420,000, were used to generate electricity, 110,000 hectares of solar power would generate 58 billion kWh, and 60,000 hectares of wind power would generate 168 billion kWh, for a total of 226 billion kWh. This alone will be enough to cover 20% of all electricity demand. This amount of electricity is almost the same as what the government is trying to achieve with nuclear power. Turning this underutilized land into a source of renewable energy is the path that Japan should take.

Related article: Percentage of total electricity generated in Japan by power source

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