Japan’s G8 Meeting

The leaders of the eight industrialized nations – the “G-8” – will meet Sunday at a lakeside resort on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido for what is been billed as the “Global Warming Summit.” As Japan is hosting this annual, it gets to pick the topics to be discussed, and this year Tokyo has made global warming topic one.

The Japanese are proud to have hosted the first important global warming confab at its ancient capital of Kyoto in 1997. Now it plans to build on that. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda made global warming the theme of his address in January to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he specifically proposed a sector-specific approach to lowering carbon emissions.

In early June, in the run-up to the summit, Fukuda proposed a “climate policy initiative” which set an ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gases by 50 to 80 percent by the year 2050, with an interim target of 14 percent carbon reduction by 2020. He also said that Japan would begin experimenting with carbon credit trading by this summer.

But Japan will almost certainly fall short of its carbon reduction goals unless it can turn around its troubled nuclear power industry. Electric power generation accounts for 40 percent of CO2 emissions. (The steel industry 10 percent; transportation, mainly automobiles, 20 percent and household and offices about 15 percent.)

It is clear that if these ambitious targets are to be met, they will have to come predominantly from the power generation sector and from more conventional generating sources. If, for example, Japan could reduce its emissions from power generation by 60 percent, that would amount to cutting emissions in half, said Yoichi Kaya, Director-General of the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth.

At Lake Toya Fukuda will tout Japan’s edge in technological innovations and alternative energy. He will undoubtedly advise the conference attendees that electric power at the lakeside resort is coming from non-polluting sources, especially the complex of solar power panels at Wakkanai on the northern tip of Hokkaido. Japan claims to be the world’s leader in electricity generation from solar power.

In his June policy announcement, Fukuda made only a passing reference to nuclear power, saying “While continuing to place top priority on safety, we intend to continue promoting our atomic energy policies.” In fact, nuclear power is critical for Japan meeting its carbon reduction goal, and in its troubled present state, it would be difficult to see how nuclear power can contributing much in the near term.

Currently, Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, supplying about 29 percent of the country’s electricity. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry plans to increase nuclear power’s share to 40 percent by the year 2030.

But meeting this ambitious target can be achieved only if all 13 of Japan’ planned new nuclear plants are built, and the operating capacity rating efficiency must rise to an average of 80 percent, a figure never met in Japan. Yet at present only two of the 13 plants are actually under construction, and the capacity factor hovers around 50 percent. Indeed, its historical average high is only about 74 percent.

One reason for the poor capacity factor is that all seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (KK) nuclear power plant complex on the Sea of Japan have been out of operation since the July, 2007, Chuetsu-oki Earthquake off the coast. There is no reliable estimation as to when these plants will resume operation, or if they ever will resume operation.

The governor of Niigata prefecture where the plants are located has not ruled out permanent closure, although he will undoubtedly come under national pressure to permit the plants to resume operations after being satisfied that they would survive any conceivable earthquake. The July quake at 6.2 was stronger than the utility had planned when building the plants.

The closures have deprived the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., of about 9 gigawatts of electric power and have resulted in increased carbon emissions amounting to some 24 million tonnes because the utility has had to run more oil and natural gas-fired power plants at higher rates to make up for the lost power. It is investing in new oil and moving up the building of gas fired plants.

Aside from the KK plants other plants in Japan have been temporarily out of commission, undergoing seismic safety checks. Earthquakes are very much on the public’s minds because of the horrendous Sichuan earthquake in China and, more recently, a 7.2 tremor that hit northern Honchu Island. It was in an unpopulated area but news organs have recycled images of collapsed bridges and landslides endlessly.

The electric power utilities seem to be in no hurry to build new plants as demand languishes. Utilities have repeatedly delayed start of construction of others, some, as in Tohoku Electric Power’s Namai Odaka, plant for years.

It would not be impossible for Japan’s nuclear power industry to operate at the 80 percent capacity rating that would be necessary to make an impact on global warming. The United States nuclear plants average for 2007 was 91 percent. But that would require that more care and thought be given to managing inspections and routine outages than in the past and an absence of such scandals as falsifying cracks that have led to long closures at some of Japan’s plants.