Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Japan Needs Nuclear Power

Japan's dependence on nuclear power to meet its energy needs stems from some of Japan's obvious drawbacks. Being the resource-destitute country that it is, the nation must rely on imports for about 80 percent of its primary energy requirements (see graph). Yet, as two oil crises have so painfully demonstrated in the past, reliance on one particular energy source can greatly undermine stability with regard to energy supplies. Nuclear power, therefore, provides energy source diversity to enhance the nation's energy security.

Dependence on Energy Imports among Major Countries (2000)

Note: Canada & UK are "net-exporting countries"
Source: IEA, "Energy Balances of OECD Countries, 1999-2000"

Energy resource availability is a major issue that will grow more serious in the years ahead. Why? Because the energy consumption of developing nations, not only in Asia but the rest of the world, is projected to rise. Asia (excluding Japan) and other developing nations consumed 24% of the world's energy in 1996. Yet that ratio is expected to jump to 39% by 2010 - showing that these countries are bound to become major energy consumers in the near-future.

Yet generally accepted studies show that recoverable energy reserves of oil are forecast to last only another 40 years, natural gas for 61 years, coal - by far the most abundant energy resource - for 227 years, and uranium for 64 years. To avoid the escalation of international tension and conflict in a scramble for energy, it is imperative to secure sources of energy to supplement those currently available.

Nuclear energy is also particularly attractive to Japan because it is environmentally friendly. Contrary to coal, natural gas, and oil-fired generators, nuclear plants produce no harmful emissions, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2), all believed to contribute to environmental pollution. Another attraction is that the supply and price of uranium is relatively stable.

Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power are also attractive options in that they are clean and inexhaustible. And while their use will no doubt grow over the years, such resources remain hamstrung by a variety of drawbacks, from their susceptibility to the vagaries of weather and poor energy conversion rates to inferior cost efficiency.

Continuous efforts will be made in research and development in order to utilize such alternative energy sources. However, until the technological hurdles obstructing them - and there are many - are overcome, nuclear power remains among the most viable means of power generation. Nuclear is compact in that a 1-million kilowatt nuclear power plant requires 30 tons of fuel per year versus 1.4 million tons of oil needed to fuel conventional plants. This edge allows for lower costs and less energy expenditure to extract, transport, and store uranium.

The advantages to nuclear power are numerous. This is why, as of 2008, 31 countries today are relying on 439 nuclear reactors with a generating capacity of over 372 million kW to meet much of their electric power needs.

Clearly for Japan - a country endowed with very few energy sources - nuclear power is an important fuel due to its stable supply and potential to alleviate environmental problems like global warming and acid rain. Thus, nuclear power is expected to play a major role as a central power source in the years to come.

To read more details about the Government of Japan's rationale for supporting the civilian nuclear program, click here.

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