Nikkei.com and Dow Jones Newswires reported referring to a press conference on Thursday by Japan’s government spokesman Mr. Fujimura that four Cabinet ministers in charge of deciding whether to restart the country’s idled nuclear plants will meet to discuss putting reactors at the Oi plant in western Japan (Fukui prefecture) back online. These four ministers – Fujimura, as well as Prime Minister Noda, trade and industry Minister Edano and Minister of State for Nuclear Power Policy Hosono – first met on Tuesday to discuss the Oi plant restart and PM Noda reportedly ordered his government to draw up “provisional safety standards” before a decision in this respect could be made.
Even though nothing has yet been decided, this clearly shows that Japan needs to have some of its idle nuclear capacity online before the summer when demand for increased power generation is expected to spike. Otherwise, blackouts become unavoidable which may even disrupt global supply chains. Japanese utilities may experience power shortages, which in turn may jeopardize Japan’s fragile economic recovery. It is important to note that approval of local governments is not legally required even though both the public angst and distrust of the Japanese political establishment would advise against going it alone. The Oi plant also seems to be topographically isolated through mountainous terrain and seems therefore likely to increase the public’s protection in case of an accident – of course, in relative terms. Currently, only one nuclear reactor remains online at the Tomari plant on the northern island of Hokkaido. This reactor, however, is slated to shut down on May 5th.
Japan relied on nuclear sources for nearly 30 percent of its electricity before the Fukushima disaster. An increase in LNG (Liquefied natural gas) cargo imports, for example, will alone not help to replace lost power generation capacity because Japan may already be purchasing more LNG than it has processing capacity for power generation according to trade ministry data and as Bloomberg reported. According to the article, Japan would need about 93 million metric tons of LNG processing power to replace the current nuclear shortfall. It has, however, only enough gas-fired generators for an equivalent to about 63 million metric tons of LNG. Moreover, not all of Japan’s LNG is actually imported for power generation.
In order to diversify further, Japan is also preparing to build the world’s largest commercial power plant using floating windmills. Given that Japan is a mountainous country, offshore windmills may be the best viable option with much faster and stable wind speeds. However, this is by no means a cheap endeavor. Quite the opposite, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “capital expenditure is about $1.7 million a megawatt for an onshore wind project and $5.5 million a megawatt for offshore”. Nevertheless, various pilot projects are in the offing.