Japan is planning to build nine new nuclear power plants by 2019, and at least 14 by 2030, according to a draft energy strategy document by METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Nuclear power’s security of supply and low-carbon output has made it a strategic priority for the country, the April report said. Today, imports account for approximately 80% of Japan’s energy requirements and by 2020 Japan has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% compared with 1990 levels.

However, if Japan is to rely on nuclear power to help meet its carbon reduction targets, the operating performance of reactors needs to be improved. This was highlighted during the annual conference of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), which took place in Shimane Prefecture in April 2010.

Addressing the conference, JAIF chairman Takashi Imai said that over the last few years the average capacity or load factors for Japanese nuclear power plants has stood at around 60%, which is 20-30 percentage points lower than in other advanced nuclear countries. Although the lower capacity factor is partly due to prolonged inspections and evaluations following the Niigata Chuetsu offshore earthquake of 2007 and other events, it has represented a “serious environmental and economical loss for the country,” Imai said.

“Raising the average capacity factor from 60% to 85% would save 70 million tons of CO2 annually, or the equivalent of 5% of Japan’s total greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2008. In that sense, the low capacity factors of Japan’s nuclear power plants represent a serious loss for the nation – both environmentally and economically,” Imai said.

The nine new nuclear power plants built by 2020 should have a capacity factor of 85%, while the 14 new plants built by 2030 will be aiming at a capacity factor of at least 90%.

As well as building new nuclear power plants, Japan will also need to improve its current fleet of 54 units by upgrading and improving ageing reactors.

In 2009, nuclear generated 260TWh of electricity, or 29% of Japan’s total electricity. The aim is that nuclear and hydro will account for 50% of Japan’s energy by 2020, and 70% by 2030.

Nuclear fuel

Japan has no indigenous uranium resources, and as a country hit by badly by the oil crisis of the 1970s, energy security is of key importance. Today, Japan imports some 80% of its energy, but is hoping to become 70% self-sufficient by 2030 by increasing the shares of nuclear and hydro.

Ensuring adequate uranium supply has become increasingly important with the expanded use of nuclear energy. The energy strategy document outlines plans to strengthen cooperation with resource-rich countries such as Kazakhstan and Australia and to increase efforts to ensure the stable supply of uranium fuel. The document identifies uranium mine development and conversion as ‘the vulnerable parts’ of Japan’s front-end fuel cycle. These areas will be particularly significant if Japan decides to pursue an international nuclear programme. Over recent years Japanese firms have brought into overseas uranium projects in an effort to secure their supplies of uranium.

In 2009, three Japanese companies (TEPCO, Toshiba and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation) brought a 20% share of Canada-based of Uranium One for $220 million. Uranium One has interests in uranium projects in Kazakhstan, South Africa, Australia and the USA. TEPCO and Toshiba also hold a 40% share of the Kazakh Kharasan project, giving them the right to 2000tU a year, while TEPCO also has a 5% interest in Canada’s Cigar Lake.

The document says that domestic enrichment facilities should be expanded in strategic alliance with outside companies. Suppliers should also be diversified. A reserve of enriched uranium stockpiles or an international fuel bank would also help to guarantee the availability of fuel.

Japan has decided to pursue a closed fuel cycle with burning of plutonium and uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which will go some way to help securing the country’s supply of nuclear fuel. A domestic reprocessing facility, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, is due to start up by the end of 2010. A Japanese MOX fuel fabrication facility is also planned for the same site in Aomori prefecture, with construction slated to begin in 2012. Japanese reactors are already using MOX fuel imported from France; Genkai 3 was the first unit to use MOX, in November 2009. But wide-scale implementation of MOX in Japan needs to be well-planned with regulators and utilities working together, the strategy said.

Export plans

Meanwhile, the Japanese government, together with three utilities (TEPCO, Kansai Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co.) is planning to export nuclear technology, according to reports in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The firms will invest 100 million yen ($1.06 million) in a company that could be set up as early as September to export Japanese technology for building and operating nuclear power plants, Asahi says. The Japanese government has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Kazakhstan (April 2007), Indonesia (November 2007), Vietnam (May 2008), the United Arab Emirates (January 2009), Jordan (April 2009), Italy (May 2009), Mongolia (July 2009) and Poland (March 2010).

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