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Japan hints at nuclear restarts after earthquake

Japan is readying to restart its first nuclear reactors since March’s devastating earthquake, according the economy minister Yukio Edano

The country’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, which have risen significantly in the last six months, would fall by several million tonnes as a result.

Japan has not restarted any reactor shut down since the earthquake and tsunami knocked several plants offline and caused meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. Since the disaster, several additional reactors have gone offline for routine maintenance, but have not returned to service because of new stress tests introduced by the government.

‘We must ensure safety’

“If we can clear the conditions of ensuring safety and reassurance, then nuclear power plants suspended from operation for periodic testing can resume [operations],” Edano told reporters at the International Energy Agency ministerial meeting late on Tuesday. But, he added: “Of course, we must ensure safety and understand [the views] of the people of Japan, including residents in the vicinity (of nuclear power stations).”

Only 10 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors remain on line – with a combined generating capacity of 8.684 gigawatts (GW), just 17.7% of the whole nuclear fleet. But because regulations force nuclear units to shut every 13 months for inspection, the country may have no operational reactors by May 2012. Japan was the world’s third-largest consumer of nuclear power in 2010, behind the US and France – at 66 million tonnes of oil equivalent, meeting over 13% of primary energy demand, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

If all of Japan’s reactors shut down early next year, the IEA forecasts LNG imports would soar by an extra 30 billion cubic metres (or 22.8 million tonnes of LNG) in 2012. Such a surge in demand could propel spot LNG prices to $25/million British thermal units (Btu), according to investment bank Merrill Lynch, which is 150% higher than before the March earthquake

This year’s LNG imports are already expected to be around 10% higher than 2010’s 70 million tonnes, as Japan switches to gas-fired electricity generation to offset the nuclear losses.

Changing attitudes

Hampering reactor restarts is not only the lack of clarity in the stress test, but also the public’s changing attitude to nuclear power, including lingering fears over radioactive contamination of foods such as beef and rice.

Earlier this month, the town mayor of Tokaimura called for the 1.1 GW Tokai Daini plant to be decommissioned because of its proximity to residents. The plant, which shut down automatically during the March earthquake, is 33 years into its 40-year life span. Operator Japan Atomic Power said repairs at Tokai Daini – 110 km from Tokyo – would take nine months longer than planned, until August 2012, because of additional work on the turbines.

Japan’s former prime minister, Naoto Kan, said he wanted a nuclear free future after the Fukushima disaster. But his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, has indicated that nuclear could play a part in the country’s energy mix for many years to come.

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