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Thursday, July 10, 2008

In Japan, Resistance Rises To Nuclear-Power Plans

As global interest in nuclear power grows, Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s struggle with the world's largest nuclear plant -- shut down after an earthquake a year ago -- illustrates how tricky and expensive operating such facilities can be.

The high cost of fossil fuels and nuclear plants' low greenhouse-gas emissions are leading more nations to consider adding nuclear facilities, in some cases for the first time in years.

The U.S., which has built few new plants since the late 1970s, has in the past three years fielded applications for more than 30 new plants -- the country has 104 reactors, generating 20% of the nation's electricity. Russia and China are building more facilities as their economies grow. Newcomers such as Indonesia and Vietnam are planning their first reactors. Today, the world's 439 operable nuclear reactors produce about 16% of global power, according to the World Nuclear Association.

In South Korea, electricity demand is projected to increase by 40% by 2030. The nation needs to build nine to 13 new reactors by 2030, adding to its 20 existing facilities, experts say. That means nuclear power could make up as much as 60% of South Korea's power, from the current 36%.

Energy ministers from the Group of Eight leading nations last month recognized the "growing interest in nuclear power as one possible solution to climate change and energy security."

Tuesday, G-8 leaders meeting in Japan officially backed a goal of halving greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Tokyo Electric's seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, in this seaside village in central Japan, can generate 8.2 million kilowatts, about 20% of the total energy supply of the company, which has 28 million customers in and around Tokyo.

Japan has been building larger plants because of the challenges of scouting out new locations and securing local support. Those problems came to the fore a year ago, when a powerful earthquake rocked the plant. The reactors shut down automatically and there was no significant damage to key facilities from the July 16 quake.

Still, images of twisted service roads and toppled barrels of nuclear waste were enough to scare people across the country.

"I thought I had made peace with the power plant, but now I can't keep it out of my mind," says Yonin Kondo, a 59-year-old fishmonger and village assembly member who lives about a mile from the plant.

Public opinion hasn't been helped by a series of other incidents at Japan's nuclear facilities. In 2006, Tokyo Electric's internal investigation found 23 cases of data manipulation at nuclear facilities to cover up problems, both minor and serious. The company says it has since undertaken steps to increase transparency and improve ethical standards.

Recent findings that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant lies close to active earthquake faults have raised questions about safety. While two new plants are under construction and a third was approved recently, safety concerns have all but scuttled Japan's goal of adding 13 nuclear reactors to its array of 55 over the next decade or so.

Tokyo Electric and government nuclear regulators say they underestimated an earthquake's potential impact on Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. The company recently increased by five times its assumption for the maximum impact the plant could suffer and started reinforcing the plant's reactors.

Some seismologists argue that active faults running near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant are longer than Tokyo Electric believes, and thus are capable of causing far greater damage.

"By the standard of any sensible person, the ground isn't suitable for a nuclear power plant," said Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a professor emeritus at Kobe University.

Hiro Hasegawa, a Tokyo Electric spokesman, says nothing has been decided about reopening the plant.

"To ensure safety, we will check everything there is to check," says Yasuhisa Komoda, director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The plant closure pushed Tokyo Electric into the red for the first time in nearly three decades. For the fiscal year ended March 31, Tokyo Electric reported a $2.5 billion loss to pay for the plant's repair, and a $6.5 billion increase in its fuel costs, for the import of extra fuel oil. The company's shares are down about 25% since the earthquake, more than the shares of any of its peers.

(Source: Wall Street Journal)

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