View from Japan:
Bridging the transition to a safe & secure energy future

by Shunsuke Kondo

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Akashikaikyou Oohashi Bridge, Awajisma Island, Japan

Japan's 52 nuclear power plants supply about a third of the country's electricity, becoming a safe, reliable and competitive energy source. Even if nuclear power rightfully is considered a domestic source of primary energy, Japan's degree of self-sufficiency in primary energy supply is only about 20%, of which 16% comes from nuclear and the rest mostly from hydropower.

Over past years, nuclear power has contributed to the rising percentage of electricity generation from non-fossil fuels from 38% in 1990 to 44% in 2001. By 2010, 49% of total generation is predicted to come from non-fossil fuels.

Japan's environment is benefiting. Though electricity generation rose by more than 21% since 1990, associated carbon dioxide emissions increased less than 7%. By 2010 Japan's electricity demand is predicted to reach 900 billion kWh. The electric utility companies are committed to reducing the CO2 emissions, and are continuing construction of four nuclear power units and preparing to build six additional ones, though it will take more than ten years before the completion of latter.

Expansion and growth prospects for nuclear power are weak globally with growth predominantly centered in Asia. Of the 36 units under construction worldwide, 20 are located in Taiwan, China; India; Japan; and South Korea.

Why are Asian countries starting and/or increasing the use of nuclear power? In my view, three reasons, mainly. One is that the per capita endowment of energy resources in the region is scarce compared with others. Nuclear power is practically a unique energy source that contributes to making their energy supply portfolio more attractive from the viewpoint of energy supply security. A second reason is the increasing recognition that we have already started to confront adverse environmental effects; the world cannot reconcile human needs and environmental security if we continue the reliance on the burning of fossil fuel for energy production. A third reason is the recognition that nuclear power has reached a technical and institutional maturity.

Nevertheless Asia's relatively positive scene does not mean that nuclear will be a major player for future electricity generation in this region. According to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook of 2002, more than half of the new electrical generating capacity projected in Asia for construction by 2030 will be gas-fired. New nuclear capacity is projected to be about one-tenth that of natural gas.

These predictions seem to be inconsistent with the result of long-term forecasts of energy supply and demand, including that of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES). This report indicates that nuclear energy may be a major component of the global energy supply mix in the latter half of this century to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Break of Dawn

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) believes that we are not at the brink of nuclear power to be a minor electricity supplier but at the break of dawn for nuclear power to become a major player in the world. To this end, the AEC is asking relevant administrative organizations and industries to pursue coordinated strategic efforts, sharing the vision that safe, economical, and reliable nuclear energy technology will contribute as a mainstay of electricity and heat generation technology, fostering economic growth, providing security and fuel diversity, and enhancing environmental quality in many parts of the world.

The AEC has recommended a three-tier strategy - or a well coordinated mix of near-term, mid-term, and long-term plan of actions. The objective of the near-term plan is to continue the most effective utilization of existing nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities.

This can be done not only by developing a broad range of technologies that promises enhancement of their long-term performance but also by assuring public acceptance through accountable behavior. Actions toward this objective are, on the one hand, to promote use of the plutonium recovered from spent fuels by reprocessing in light-water reactors (LWRs), securing adequate interim spent fuel storage capacity at-reactor and away-from-reactor facilities, and preparing for the selection of the site for geological disposal of vitrified high-level radioactive wastes.

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