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March 15, 2013

Japan’s fossil-fueled generation remains high because of continuing nuclear plant outages

Graph of monthly generation by electric utilities in Japan, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg LP.

Republished: March 15, 2013: To correct a label on the graph.

Japan's use of fossil-fueled generation—the combined amount of electricity generated from natural gas, oil, and coal—was up 21% in 2012, compared to the level in 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake and related tsunami that led to the destruction of Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and subsequent outages at other plants.

Following the accident at Fukushima, all reactors in Japan were required to perform computer-simulated stress tests to confirm their continued ability to operate safely in the event of a natural disaster. As reactors shut down for regularly scheduled maintenance or refueling, stress tests were performed and submitted to the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for review and acceptance. On May 5, 2012, the last of Japan's 54 nuclear generating reactors was shut down for scheduled maintenance and stress tests. Only two reactors, Ohi Units 3 and 4, have restarted since the accident, and they are scheduled for an outage later this year.

In September 2012, Japan established the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to ensure the safe operation of its nuclear power plants. The NRA is an administrative part of the Japanese Cabinet and replaces its predecessor, NISA. The restart of Japan's nuclear power plants requires the approval of the NRA as well as the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Natural Resources and Energy Agency. Against the backdrop of increased thermal generation and trade deficits, in January 2013, Japan's NRA announced that final nuclear safety regulations will be issued in July 2013.

The new regulations are expected to address severe accidents and direct attacks, emergency preparedness and response, and seismic conditions near existing nuclear power plants. All nuclear power plants must meet these new regulations and pass seismic inspections in order to restart. The economic effects on Japan's electric power utilities of implementing the new regulations are unclear at this time, although some estimates exceed $11 billion, and Japan's national policy on nuclear power as a component of its future energy mix is evolving. These two circumstances result in uncertainty about the future of nuclear power in Japan.

Between 1987 and 2011, nuclear generation accounted for an average of 30% of Japan's total generation. As a result of the nuclear outages, fossil-fueled generation of electricity rose to 90% of Japan's total electricity output during 2012, with 8% from hydro and only 2% from nuclear.

Japan's electric power utilities have been consuming more natural gas (largely imported as liquefied natural gas, or LNG) and petroleum to make up for the shortfall in nuclear output, with a smaller increase in the consumption of coal. Total post-Fukushima fossil fuel consumption for electricity generation reached nearly 500 trillion British thermal units in January 2012 (see chart below).

Graph of monthly consumption of fossil fuels, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg LP.

Japan's electric power companies started importing more LNG soon after the accident in March 2011. LNG imports to meet power needs ramped up as Japan's economy began to recover and as more nuclear plants were shut down for testing. Consumption of natural gas to produce electricity was up 15% through 2012 compared to 2011. Japan's use of LNG set a record in January 2012, nearing 9 billion cubic feet per day, about 2 billion cubic feet per day greater than levels in early 2011. Japan is the world's leading importer of LNG. A recent edition of the EIA's Natural Gas Weekly Update focused on the trends in the Japanese imports of LNG.

The remaining demand for power has been made up by consumption of petroleum—crude oil and heavy fuel oil—by Japanese power companies. In 2012, Japanese electric power companies increased their consumption of crude oil and heavy fuel oil by more than 105,000 barrels per day to generate electricity, compared to 2011 (see chart below).

Graph of Japanese crude and heavy oil consumption, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg LP.