International

Ukraine war is ‘best opportunity’ for nuclear comeback since Fukushima, industry says


Russia’s war in Ukraine has created the “best opportunity” for Japan’s nuclear industry to stage a comeback since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, according to the country’s largest reactor maker.

Akihiko Kato, nuclear division head at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said in an interview with the Financial Times that nuclear energy was a geopolitically safer alternative to Russian energy.

“It may be challenging to import fuel from Russia in the future. People are realising that as long as we import fuel from overseas, there will always be fear of instability,” Kato said, speaking at the company’s Tokyo headquarters.

“Many have changed their views on nuclear power, which is a stable and a domestic source of energy.”

Japan’s heavy reliance on Russian gas imports has rekindled the debate over nuclear power in the country more than a decade after regulators took most plants offline following one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.

The world’s third-largest economy has been plunged into a power crisis exacerbated by the soaring cost of liquefied natural gas and oil. Japan imports about 9 per cent of its LNG from Russia, putting it in a difficult diplomatic position as its western allies impose sanctions on Moscow.

But in contrast with the US, which sources close to a quarter of its processed uranium from Russia, Japan imports about 55 per cent of its processed uranium from western European countries, according to Ryan Kronk, a power markets analyst at Rystad Energy.

Kato’s remarks underscore the shift in the country’s nuclear discourse by an industry which has been in retreat and is now emboldened to speak out. The remarks come after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told investors earlier this month in London that Japan will use nuclear power to “help the world achieve de-Russification of energy”.

“The tone of the government is changing,” Kato said, urging Kishida to come out even more strongly in favour of restarting nuclear power plants.

There are already plans for some plants to start coming back online by as soon as 2023, he said, adding that plants in the western prefecture of Shimane and Onagawa in the north are likely ready to restart as they have passed safety inspections.

Japan sourced about a third of its energy from 54 nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster. Now only four are operational and 10 have been given restart approvals.

The $12bn conglomerate has not built a new nuclear power plant station since 2009 and instead has focused on maintenance and support for its existing 16 reactors.

One important revenue stream for the company has been setting up emergency facilities to safely shut down plants in case the reactors are destroyed by terrorist attacks or other natural disasters.

Mitsubishi Heavy expects an increase of orders for components from Europe in the coming years, as countries including the UK and France commit to building new nuclear plants, said Kato.

“Japan desperately needs to improve its energy self-sufficiency,” said Tom O’Sullivan at Mathyos, a Tokyo-based energy and defence consultancy.

“Nuclear power stations are a sunk cost and have been an under exploited asset since 2011. Without them our electricity prices will probably go through the roof causing significant economic damage.”

The Japanese public remains cautious about nuclear power. But a recent poll by Nikkei showed that 53 per cent of respondents would support nuclear reactors restarting if safety can be assured, the highest proportion since Fukushima.

The country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority last year found serious safety breaches at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa station, one of the world’s biggest nuclear power plants, operated by Tokyo Electric.

Although the plant has passed a safety inspection, it is not allowed to resume operations until the regulator lifts its order prohibiting the transfer of nuclear fuel issued after the scandal.



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