On July 9, Japan’s Kansai Electric Power Company‘s (TSE:9503) 1180 MWe Ohi 3 unit reached full capacity, prompting the Japanese to announce a reduction of its energy savings targets. The unit was restarted following the suspension of Japan’s nuclear reactors for safety inspections after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Ohi 3′s sister unit, Ohi 4, is also expected to be restarted later in July.
Japan is heavily dependent on nuclear power, with nuclear supplying a third of the country’s energy needs. When all 54 Japanese nuclear reactors were idled for safety checks and maintenance following the earthquake, however, Japan’s utility companies drastically cut back their use of oil and natural gas substitutes. With fears of blackouts looming, especially during the power-hungry summer months, Japan’s politicians urged citizens to reduce their power consumption and implemented targets for saving energy.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced that beginning July 10, energy-saving targets will be relaxed from 15 to 10 percent. Fujimara expects the targets to be further revised once Ohi 4 comes back online.
The disaster at Fukushima, recently characterized as “preventable” in a scathing official report, has forced Japan to rethink its allocation of energy resources.
Daniel Kammen, a professor with the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkely, told Uranium Investing News, “in the medium to longer term, Japan has initiated a true reassessment of energy resources, with efficiency prioritized right away, and new solar, offshore wind, and geothermal seen as sectors that can and should grow very large, very fast.”
Fossil fuel dependency?
Jessica Lang, a nuclear energy policy associate with The Breakthrough Institute, pointed to data from last March, commenting, “since the earthquake, fossil fuels have provided about 80 percent of electricity, while nuclear has dropped to about 10 percent.” She believes it will be challenging for the country to meet costly demands and scale requirements. “As we’ve seen over the past year, Japan has greatly increased its burning of fossil fuels by about 35 percent, which means much more coal and LNG [liquefied natural gas] imports. [It has also] increased its hydro by about 40 percent, which involves running existing dams more of the time,” she stated.
Although relatively expensive, Lang indicated, “most analysts expect Japan to continue ramping up coal and natural gas electricity production. Renewables currently make up about 1 to 2 percent of Japan’s electricity, but most of that is waste and biomass burning, which is difficult to scale up.”
Joseph Dukert, senior fellow with the US Association for Energy Economics believes a solution will involve, “a gradual rebuilding of the Japanese nuclear stable. The only feasible supplement I can envision, however, is natural gas; and this will depend on a large increase in global gas production and a steady, costly development of delivery infrastructure, both by pipeline and LNG. I expect Japanese energy supply problems to continue for perhaps a decade.”
Pro-nuclear politics prevail
In the Kagoshima Prefecture, a supporter of the nuclear industry was re-elected for a third term. The incumbent governor, Yuichiro Ito, defeated anti-nuclear activisit Yoshitaka Mukohara, who focused his entire campaign on opposing the restart of the prefecture’s Sendai nuclear power plant. Using safety and public acceptance as cornerstones of the nuclear issue, Ito indicated that he will conditionally support the proposed restart of Kyushu’s two pressurized water reactors at Sendai, whose operations have been suspended since entering their respective scheduled outages in May and September 2011.
Uranium fundamentals still strong
As the energy crisis in Japan continues to unfold, the massive drawdown of nuclear power in Japan, along with Germany (last year Japan used 44 percent less nuclear power, Germany reduced nuclear by 23 percent and worldwide nuclear power use dropped by four percent) has certainly impacted the price of uranium, though not drastically. Spot prices have slipped to between $50 and $55 per pound, about $10 below pre-Fukushima levels, but are expected to rebound in 2013 according to a recent Scotiabank report.
Factors behind a rebound include the coming expiration of the “Megatons to Megawatts” program between the United States and Russia to convert highly-enriched uranium from nuclear warheads to low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel, which is expected to remove 24 million pounds from the market. China’s plan to restart its nuclear program after conducting safety reviews is also likely to lend support for uranium prices longer term. The country proposes to build 100 reactors by 2030 and 197 by 2050.
Demand for uranium oxide is expected to grow by three percent per annum as the developed world clamors for electrification. The amount of mined uranium, however, is currently insufficient to keep up with demand, meaning prices are likely to continue moving up.
Securities Disclosure: I, Dave Brown, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.