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Nuclear power: caught between a rock ...

THE NUCLEAR debate in Japan rages on. For years, the nuclear power industry has enabled the country to constrain its oil and gas bills, raising domestic security of supply and, at the same time, lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

The third-largest producer of nuclear power in the world, Japan has 55 reactors, providing some 30% of its electricity needs. With nuclear power included, Japan's energy self-sufficiency rises to about 18%, still modest in world terms. Yet, like elsewhere in the world, it remains a hugely unpopular business, with critics understandably worried about the possible risks when things go wrong.

A spate of safety scares, cover-ups and other confidence-shattering measures – including the deaths of a number of plant workers in 2004 – have made things worse. The trouble is nuclear energy remains central to the government's energy policy, simply because of its near total dependence on foreign oil and gas.

Tokyo plans to build a dozen more nuclear facilities over the coming decade to meet power demand and also to comply with its Kyoto commitment to reduce GHG emissions. Despite the high initial outlay, nuclear power is seen as the most cost effective way of generating the power Japan's economy needs, the government argues.

In July, the Atomic Energy Commission reaffirmed the country's general policy direction, which points to a 30-40% share for nuclear power in the total generation mix by 2030. Despite the weighty opposition, the government's nuclear programme is making headway.

Last year saw the commencement of the 1.358 gigawatt (GW) Shika-2 plant, operated by Hokuriku. Several newbuilds are also under way including Hokkaido's 866 megawatt (MW) Tomari-3 plant and Chugoku's larger Shimane-3 facility, both slated for start-up around the turn of the decade. A string of other initiatives, either planned or on order, will add a further 13.407 GW of generating capacity.

Crucially, most of the existing infrastructure is again up and running after precautionary shut-downs. Kansai Electric Power – the country's second-largest generator – was given the green light late last year to re-start its Mihama plant, closed since a 2004 fatality at the site. It is the last of the company's reactors to resume operations following the shut-downs.

And after a series of delays, Japan Nuclear Fuel's Rokkasho processing plant is also set to commence active testing this month, with a view to commencing full operations by next year. Japan's stockpile of spent fuel is another cause of concern for anti-nuclear campaigners.

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