Today in Energy

February 11, 2015

Japan plans to restart some nuclear plants in 2015 after Fukushima shutdown

Graph of Japan's net electricity generation by fuel, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Agency, METI

Previously one of the world's largest producers of nuclear-generated electricity, Japan has relied heavily on fossil fuels following the meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi and subsequent shutdown of the country's nuclear fleet. In 2013, when almost all of Japan's nuclear fleet was shut down, more than 86% of Japan's generation mix was composed of fossil fuels. In 2014, Japan's nuclear generation was zero. The Japanese government anticipates bringing online a few nuclear facilities in 2015.

Nuclear reactor restarts could begin as soon as May 2015, as Kyushu Electric's Sendai Units 1 and 2 in southwestern Japan received approval to restart from the Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) and local authorities in November 2014. The NRA also approved Kansai Electric's Takahama Units 3 and 4 at the end of 2014, although these units are still awaiting authorization from the local government. The timelines for restarting these units and other reactors that currently have applications pending before the NRA are uncertain in the face of more stringent regulations and, in some provinces, political opposition.

Japan's nuclear industry has been disrupted for nearly four years, ever since the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami that occurred off the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011. That event led to the disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi and the removal from service of the country's entire nuclear capacity. Nuclear power plants that were not immediately damaged were gradually shut down as routine maintenance was scheduled to occur. Two nuclear reactors, Kansai Electric's Ohi Units 3 and 4, were restarted in July 2012 and ran until September 2013, when they were shut down again.

Prior to the Fukushima accident and the gradual displacement of all of Japan's nuclear generation, nuclear generation represented 27% of Japan's net generation in 2010. At that time, Japan ranked as the third-largest nuclear power generator in the world behind the United States and France. Natural gas and coal were the primary fossil fuels used in Japan, making up about 30% and 24% of Japan's electricity mix, respectively, in 2010. Oil, one of the most expensive and least-clean fuels to burn, accounted for just 7% of power generation in 2010. Renewable energy made up about 11%, mostly from hydroelectric generators.

Following the Fukushima accident, nuclear's share of electricity generation declined, and energy conservation measures were enforced for larger businesses and highly encouraged for smaller consumers. Japan's utilities initially substituted the lost nuclear generation with natural gas, heavy fuel oil, crude oil, and coal, but oil-fired generation began declining in 2013, as Japan relied more on natural gas and coal. Meanwhile, almost 4 gigawatts (GW) of additional coal capacity came online in 2013, increasing the share of coal-fired generation. Japanese utilities have proposed building several additional natural gas- and coal-fired power plants to replace aging generators and to serve the country's high electricity demand.

Japan imports virtually all its fossil fuels. As a result of greater fossil fuel use and higher international oil prices during the past few years, Japan spent 60% more for fossil fuel imports in 2013 compared to 2010, an increase of $270 billion over three years. This reversed Japan's trade surplus and created a widening trade deficit. Utilities have passed on some of the high cost for power production to consumers, and electricity prices have risen at least 20%.

The current Japanese government believes that the use of nuclear energy is necessary to help reduce current energy supply strains and alleviate high electricity prices. Japan's new energy policy, issued in 2014, emphasizes energy security, economic efficiency, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, although the plan has yet to provide details of the country's future power generation fuel mix.

For more information, see EIA's Country Analysis Brief for Japan.

Principal contributors: Candace Dunn