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Energy diversification is essential for Japan

Public resistance to nuclear power is a hurdle to overcome for Japan to meet its energy targets

Six years on from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the impact is still being felt in the energy sector.

Of the 42 nuclear reactors in the island nation, 12 have passed safety reviews and three of those are already back in operation, at a total capacity of 2,670MW, while the other nine are being prepared to go back online. However, three out of nine units that were approved will need more time before they can go online.

But two obstacles remain. Once the government has signed them off, the nuclear reactors must still get approval from local authoritiesand public opposition remains strong. A recent nationwide survey found almost 60% of the public are still against nuclear power.

Following a lawsuit from local residents, two reactors in Takahama were brought offline just after they had restarted in February 2016. But, in May 2017 the High Court in Osaka overturned the ruling to shut them down.

Such opposition presents a challenge for a nation which has no oil and gas pipelines from neighbouring countries and no natural resources, and which has a self-sufficiency of primary energy of just 6%.

Teruaki Masumoto, chair of Japan's World Energy Council, says: "More effort is needed to seek people's better understanding of not only risks, but also the importance and benefits of energy, especially nuclear energy. After all, nuclear is an invaluable technology that can create bulky energy without carbon emissions. Of course, safety has to be secured under new regulations."

Most of the public favour renewables over nuclear, and a feed-in-tariff system which was introduced in 2012 caused a rapid penetration of renewables such as mega-solar PVs.

The policy hasn't been a universal success however. In some areas, the total capacity of renewables connected to the grid has become larger than the minimum demand during the day, making it difficult to balance supply and demand.

Japan is the world's largest LNG importer, relying on the fuel for almost 100% of its natural gas supply from more than 15 countries, another consequence of Fukushima-LNG accounted for 30% of Japan's electricity generation in 2010, but that share increased to 42% in 2015. Share of coal is also more than 30%. Diversification of energy sources is essential for Japan.

Masumoto expects energy imports to fall in the next decade, even as shipments from the US increase. If the six out of nine remaining nuclear reactors which have passed safety reviews come back online as planned, at a total capacity of 9130 MW, that will reduce Japan's LNG demand by about 8.6 million tonnes per year (upper value assuming one-to-one replacement from LNG to nuclear), he says.

While global supply and demand of LNG is increasing, it is not only the changing picture in Japan that will influence southeast Asian LNG prices in the decade to come. How China's economy fares will also have a big influence.

While countries such as China continue to demand enormous quantities of fuel, Japan's consumption is actually slowing down. It has decreased by 14% in the past decade, with electricity demand down by 10%, a trend which is expected to continue. In part, this has also been a result of Fukushima, as efforts to save energy have been made in the industrial, commercial and household sectors.

A policy known as the Top Runner Programme has seen appliances, cars, other goods and buildings subjected to energy efficiency improvements, and highly efficient goods are now deployed widely. An increase in rooftop solar panels has also contributed.

In addition, the residential power market has been opened up, with 370 companies now competing for customers. Nevertheless, only 5.4% of customers have switched to another provider, mainly in urban settings such as Tokyo, and it is thought the move will have little effect on the overall demand.

As Japan looks towards the future, meeting goals set out in the government's energy mix strategy which was announced in July 2015 will be critical. That mix in 2030 should be 22-24% renewables, 20-22% nuclear, 27% LNG, 26% coal and 3% oil, respectively.

"To achieve this goal, nuclear is a must. And it is vital for us to utilise what we learned from Fukushima accident for future nuclear safety." Masumoto says.

This article appears in the latest issue of World Energy Focus, the magazine of the World Energy Council, with content produced by Petroleum Economist. For more information and to register, visit the site worldenergyfocus.org.

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