Economic necessity winning Japan nuclear debate

Economic necessity winning
Japan nuclear debate
Updated 25 June 2012

Economic necessity winning Japan nuclear debate

Economic necessity winning
Japan nuclear debate

LAUNCESTON, Australia: Japan's decision to tentatively return to nuclear power with the approval of the restart of two reactors is perhaps the first sign that economic necessity is going to trump public fears.
Bringing back the Ohi plant's two units of 1,180 megawatts isn't by itself going to do much to mitigate Japan's soaring import bill for fossil fuels, but if it heralds the return of much of the nation's reactors the difference will be felt from next year.
So far, market reaction to the news of the restart has been somewhat blase, and somewhat less so from the public, but widespread anger or fears have yet to be vented.
The reaction in energy markets is also understandable as it will make very little difference in the short term to Japan's demand for liquefied natural gas, crude and fuel oil, since the July restart comes in the middle of peak summer demand and will probably only help overcome electricity shortages.
Even if the nuclear power did replace fossil fuel generation, the two units coming online would displace about 180,000 tons of LNG a month, or about 70,000 barrels of crude a day.
Given that Japan burned a record 4.411 million tons of LNG in May, up 22 percent year-on-year, and crude and fuel oil of 14.331 million barrels, up 157 percent, the saving would be a drop in the bucket.
But if more reactors start to come online by the end of the year and in periods of slack demand, the impact on fossil fuel consumption could become more pronounced.
Another 2,264 megawatts of nuclear power could be restarted by the end of the year, given that four units are close to final approvals.
Taken together with the Ohi plant restarts, potentially close to 400,000 tons of LNG a month, or 150,000 barrels of oil a day, may no longer be needed.
This represents about 5.7 percent of the record 83 million tons of LNG Japan consumed in the fiscal year that ended in March 2012, or just under 15 percent of May's oil use by utilities.
It's also not hard to see that Japan would be very keen to start reducing its fossil fuel use, given the high costs of imports.
Cutting 400,000 tons a month of LNG imports would save about $350 million at the April price paid of $871 a ton, for an annual saving of close to $4.16 billion.
Dropping 150,000 barrels a day of crude would save about $5.5 billion a year, assuming an oil price of around $100 a barrel.
The above figures also show why it's likely that if Japan is able to make any reduction in fossil fuel consumption as nuclear plants restart, the cuts will most likely come in crude and fuel oil.
This has the double benefit of lowering carbon emissions by a greater amount and saving more money.
Given that the trade balance appears to have moved into structural deficit since the Fukushima nuclear accident last March, the need to cut fuel imports becomes all the more urgent.
Apart from a tiny 25.4 billion yen ($322 million) surplus in February this year, the trade balance has been negative since October last year and has totaled just over 2 trillion yen, or about $26 billion, for the first four months of 2012.
Economic necessity is likely to provide a spur for nuclear restarts, setting the state for a battle against a public that is mainly opposed to resuming atomic generation.
For this reason, progress in Japan is likely to be slow, and the country will continue to plan a generation future around LNG, and to a lesser extent, renewables, such as wind and solar.
The big losers from any sustained nuclear resumption will be crude and fuel oil.
— Clyde Russell is a Reuters market
analyst. The views expressed are his own.