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Nuclear Energy's Slow Return Hurts Japan's Power Producers

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A new study shows that the Japanese nuclear industry is unlikely to reach a government target of providing at least 20 percent of the country's energy by 2030.

The study was prepared for the Reuters news agency.

In Japan, eight nuclear power centers are currently producing electricity. Another is expected to start operating this month. That means nuclear centers are set to provide more electricity this year than any other form of renewable energy, except for hydroelectric power.

It will be the first time Japan's nuclear industry has produced that much electricity since 2011. That was the year when an earthquake and tsunami destroyed part of the Fukushima power center in eastern Japan.

After that disaster, all of the country's nuclear power centers were ordered closed.

Researchers say as few as six nuclear power centers are likely to re-start production in the next five years. That is likely to result in fewer than the 30 power centers needed to reach the government's goal by 2030.

Reuters noted that, based on its research, Japan may get 15 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy by 2030.

Two nuclear technologies compete for approval

"It's impossible to meet the target, that's pretty much confirmed," said Takeo Kikkawa, an energy studies professor at the Tokyo University of Science. He was part of a group that studied Japan's energy policy earlier this year.

Kikkawa said that he did not expect other nuclear reactors to restart operations before 2020.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority created new safety rules after the Fukushima disaster.

All nuclear reactors had to receive new operating permits before restarting.

But the recovery has been slow. Before the disaster, Japan had 54 reactors, which provided 30 percent of the country's electricity. At that time, Japan had the third largest number of reactors in the world.

But the return of nuclear energy in Japan has been uneven and may be based on the technology used.

Employees of Kyushu Electric Power Co. hoist a fuel rod using a crane from a spent fuel pool at Sendai nuclear power station, in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, July 8, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Employees of Kyushu Electric Power Co. hoist a fuel rod using a crane from a spent fuel pool at Sendai nuclear power station, in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, July 8, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Kansai Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power have won approval or are set to receive permits to restart all of their reactors. Those reactors use pressurized water to create electricity. All are far away from Tokyo, home to over 9 million people.

In eastern Japan, boiling water reactor, or BWR technology is used to produce electricity.

Japanese courts are hearing many cases involving nuclear reactors in the eastern part of the country. In addition, government regulators are disputing risk levels with power plant operators.

The older BWR technology is being reconsidered because it was used at Fukushima.

Nobuo Tanaka is chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. He served as head of the International Energy Agency from 2007 to 2011.

Tanaka notes that reactor design has become a political issue. "When you come to the BWRs, the issue becomes very politicized," he said.

He added that the public image of another major electricity provider, Tepco, has been harmed. Tepco operates two nuclear plants that have been damaged in natural disasters.

Tanaka said, "Tepco does not have any support as a nuclear operator."

Tepco has reached the first level in the approval process for some of its plants, but it faces local opposition.

However, supporters of Japan's power industry point to progress.

Satoru Katsuno is chairman of a group representing electric utilities in Japan. He said that approval of pressurized water reactors takes time. He noted there also are developments with boiling water reactors.

Katsuno is president of the utility Chubu Electric. His company has been locked in a dispute with regulators over its Hamaoka nuclear energy center on Japan's east coast, which uses the older technology.

Increased use of carbon-based fuels

For now, many experts believe that Japan will depend on fossil fuels, such as liquefied natural gas and coal, for a large part of its energy production. That could be needed as the growth of solar, wind and hydropower energy slows.

However, that will make meeting international agreements to cut carbon dioxide gases more difficult for the country.

In the last six years, Japan has had to buy fuel to replace the energy that would have been created by nuclear reactors. Most of that fuel has been liquefied natural gas. The government estimates that the electricity industry has had to spend $130 billion for fuel during that period.

Utility industry officials say the lack of realistic energy goals makes it difficult to invest for the future.

And concerns over the ability of power stations to survive natural disasters are strengthened with each new event.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English from a Reuters story. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.​

Words in This Story

renewable –adj. able to be replaced by nature

plant –n. a building or factory were something is made

reactor –n. a large device that produces nuclear energy

regulator –n. an official who works for the part of the government that controls a public activity by making and enforcing rules

utility –n. a service such as electricity or water that is provided to the public

lock – v. connecting or securing together

boiling adj. heating water or another liquid

impossible – adj. very undesirable; unable to take place

tsunami – n. a great wave produced by volcanic activity or an earthquake

hydroelectric adj. related to production of electricity by water power

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