Fossil imports burn Japanese trade again

25 January 2013

Japanese spending on imported fossil fuels soared in the latter part of last year, helping push the country to a trade deficit for the second year in a row. Emissions targets are under revision as most nuclear power plants remain closed.

A lack of domestic energy resources was a major economic and strategic factor in Japan's push to develop nuclear power through the 1970s and the same issue has returned to prominence with the prolonged nuclear shutdown. Only two of 50 large nuclear reactors are currently generating while the rest await a regulatory process that may - or may not - approve their restart.

Akihabara, Tokyo, known as Electric City (Guwashi999) 460x120
Tokyo's Akihabara district, known as Electric City (Image: Guwashi999)

Making up a large part of replacement power is LNG, imports of which were 11% higher in 2012 compared to 2011. However, the increase in demand for the fuel came with a corresponding regional price increase that pushed the total spending on LNG up by 25% to ¥6.0 trillion ($66 billion). This is about ¥2.5 trillion ($27 billion) more than levels seen before the March 2011 accident at Fukushima Daiichi, which preceded the progressive shutdown of nuclear generation.

This is the second year in a row that Japan's LNG imports have increased significantly. In 2011 the country imported 12% more of the fuel than in 2010 at a total cost of ¥4.7 trillion ($50 billion) - a spending increase of almost 38%. This jump came on top of a general trend of modest year-year increases in LNG use.

LNG now represents over 8% of all Japanese imports by value, with the only greater commodity being petroleum, which represents 17%. Overall in 2012 Japan recorded a trade deficit of ¥6.9 trillion ($75 billion) after exports of ¥63.7 trillion ($699 billion).

The government of prime minister Shinzo Abe has expressed general support for the resumption of nuclear power generation, given pubilc understanding and independent oversight by the new Nuclear Regulatory Authority. However, that body will need until July to finalise its requirements for approving restarts and the likely scale of Japan's surviving nuclear generation sector remains unclear.

Given this uncertainty, ministers have openly dismissed the idea of keeping to climate change emissions reductions announced when an expansion of nuclear energy was planned. New environment minister Nobuteru Ishihara emerged from a cabinet meeting today to tell reporters, "We are not able to set precise figures yet, because the future of nuclear power hasn't been decided."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News