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Japan might turn it on, but nuclear hits trouble elsewhere

Nuclear power and the fate of its closed stations are a touchstone issue in Japanese domestic politics.

The return to power of the conservative, pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party in Japan has seen a upsurge in hope among the supporters of nuclear power around the world — including investors in uranium stocks here and in Canada, London and the US, and a surge in the share prices of Japan’s power utilities.

There’s a belief the LDP government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attempt to restart the 50 or so nuclear power stations across Japan shut down for safety checks and maintenance in the wake of the March 2011 disaster at Fukushima which followed the huge earthquake and then double tsunami. Late last week Bloomberg quoted analysts in Australia and elsewhere forecasting a rise in uranium prices, after prices dipped 14% in 2012.

Japanese media say the LDP won’t move on the controversial issue until after the upper house elections in July because Abe wants to maximise his chances of obtaining a rare majority in both houses of parliament, enabling him to pass legislation aimed at redrafting Japan’s constitution, changing education and introducing huge spending plans aimed at boosting economic growth.

But nuclear power and the fate of the closed stations are a touchstone issue in Japanese domestic politics. Abe will move slowly because the country’s new nuclear regulator won’t start making decisions until the second half of the year (conveniently after the upper house polls), starting with the controversial Ohi plant in northern Japan which may or may not be sited over a newly discovered fault line and potential quake zone.

Meanwhile, the giant Toshiba group is trying to reduce its stake in the US nuclear power station group Westinghouse. Toshiba is part of Japan’s business establishment and would normally be seen as an enthusiast for nuclear energy, but it’s concluded America’s shale gas and oil boom has reduced the chances of new nuclear plants being built in that country. Shale gas is also seen as emerging in other potential customer countries in Europe, south America and China.

Toshiba, which was forced to buy out an American shareholder in Westinghouse last year, is looking to sell down its 87% stake to close to a still controlling 50%. US shareholder Shaw originally sold control of Westinghouse to Toshiba around six years ago, so its decision to exist is an added sign from business the gloss is going off nuclear power. This sell down is a positive for investors in Toshiba who are worried about the company’s rained financial state, weak profits and exposure to the slow Japanese economy.

And there was another straw from Japan last week with the news the change of government hasn’t halted the country’s search for new energy sources. NHK reported at the weekend the “government is increasing efforts to secure energy resources in its territorial waters as most of the country’s nuclear power plants remain offline since the Fukushima accident.”

In France, the world’s most nuclear power dependant economy, the country’s major power utility has confirmed a new nuclear power station in the north of the country is running very much over budget and over time. The new station is based on the next generation reactor type — European Pressurised Reactor, or EPR — with the cost soaring to 8.5 billion euros (over $10.3 billion) compared to the original budget in 2005 of 3.3 billion (around $4.1 billion).

EDF is the world’s largest generator of nuclear power by electricity produced. But this project, planned to produce 1.65 gigawatts of electricity, the country’s plant first in 15 years, has been beset by delays. It was due to start up in 2012, but is now likely to start operating in 2016.

The combination of the growth in non-nuclear renewables, energy conservation, the impact of taxes and the surge in shale gas (and oil in the US and other countries) saw the International Energy Agency cut its forecast for nuclear power capacity by 2035 by 10% in its 2012 world outlook. In a press release issued in November, the IEA said its central scenario shows that while “ambitions for nuclear have been scaled back” by some countries following the Fukushima accident in Japan, capacity is still projected to rise, led by China, Korea, India and Russia.

World nuclear capacity, according to the IEA, will reach some 580 GWe in 2035 — about 50 GWe lower than last year’s projection. Production will grow from 2756 TWh in 2010 to about 4370 TWh in 2035, an increase of almost 60%. Correspondingly, the share of nuclear in total generation falls from 13% to 12%. That forecast is looking rubbery given the experience of EDF in its new French plant and the fact plans to replace old plant in the UK with the new EPR are increasingly unlikely.

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    Roger Clifton
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    First-of-a-kind of any engineering is expensive, becoming cheaper until mass production is achieved. However the EPR is limited in this respect by its need for massive forgings.

    Small modular reactors, such as mPower (320 MW), are more likely to reach mass production. In the event of a Global Climate Emergency Response, the investors in the winning design will jackpot.

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