Japan on Saturday approved the resumption of nuclear power operations at two reactors despite mass public opposition, the first to come back on line after they were all shut down following the Fukushima crisis.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his popularity ratings sagging, had backed the restarts for some time. He announced the government's decision at a meeting with keep ministers, giving the go-ahead to two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power Co at Ohi in western Japan.
The decision, despite public concerns over safety after the big earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, could open the door to more restarts among Japan's 50 nuclear power reactors.
"There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps," Trade Minister Yukio Edano told a news conference after the announcement.
"But, based on what we learned from the Fukushima accident, those measures that need to be taken urgently have been addressed, and the level of safety has been considerably enhanced (at the Ohi plant)," he said.
Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, said the government policy to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear energy in the medium- to long-term was unchanged despite the decision.
The decision is a victory for Japan's still-powerful nuclear industry and reflects Noda's concerns about damage to the economy if atomic energy is abandoned following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The push to restart the two Ohi reactors, before a potential summer power crunch, also underscores the premier's eagerness to win backing from businesses worried about high electricity costs that could push factories offshore. Kansai electric says it will take six weeks to get both reactors running fully.
But the decision risks a backlash from a public deeply concerned about nuclear safety. As many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside
Noda's office on Friday night amid a heavy police presence to denounce the restarts, urging the premier to step down and shouting "Lives matter more than the economy."
Noda's own future is murky as he struggles to hold his fractious party together after cutting a deal with opposition rivals to double Japan's sales tax to 10 percent by 2015.
"I imagine there will be a fair number of (reactor) restarts by next year. The government under Noda is surprisingly eager," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
Nuclear power supplied almost 30 percent of electricity needs before the March 2011 disaster, which triggered meltdowns at Fukushima, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations.
The accident destroyed public belief in the "safety myth" promoted by Japanese nuclear power advocates for decades.
Activists have collected more than 7.5 million signatures on a petition urging an end to atomic power. Protesters have poured into the street almost daily over the past week.
All 50 reactors were shut down for maintenance or safety checks in the months since the accident. The government had placed a priority on gaining the approval of local communities for the Ohi restarts to avert July-August power shortages.
Critics say the government was too hasty in signing off on the restarts, especially given delays in setting up a new, more independent nuclear regulatory agency.
Public trust in regulators was tattered by evidence that cosy ties with utilities were a key reason Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co was unprepared for the tsunami, and subsequent signs that relations remain far too snug.
Parliament's lower house on Friday approved legislation to create a new atomic regulator, but getting it up and running will take months. That could force the government to go slower on restarts, though some politicians are keen to forge ahead.
"We can no longer go back to a life that depends on candles," ruling party heavyweight Yoshito Sengoku said in an interview with the Sankei newspaper this week
The Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, the current watchdog, has approved stress tests for Shikoku Electric Power Co Inc's 890-megawatt No.3 reactor in Ikata, southern Japan. Next on the list for possible approval are two Hokkaido Electric Power reactors in Tomari, northern Japan and Hokuriku Electric's two in Shika, western Japan.
"Basically he (Noda) doesn't want to wait but ... it would attract criticism so the government would be cautious if they are clever," said Hiroshi Takahashi, a Fujitsu Research Institute fellow and member of a panel advising the government on energy policies.
THE impending restart of two Japanese nuclear reactors this month and the expectation several new nuclear power plants will come on line in China, India and Russia between now and 2014 is putting the focus on global uranium supplies.
The search is on for high-grade uranium sources ahead of a possible supply shortage in 2014, with Africa, Central Asia and parts of South America all deemed promising. For now, though, the biggest uranium producers are in Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia, Niger and Russia.
According to the World Nuclear Association, global consumption of uranium last year was about 69,000 tonnes, of which about 80 per cent came directly from mines. The remainder came from secondary sources such as commercial stockpiles and from decommissioned nuclear weapons.
Under a 20-year agreement between the United States and countries of the former Soviet Union, military-grade highly enriched uranium in down-blended form is sent from Russia to the US, for use by power utilities there.This agreement, which expires in 2013, saves the equivalent of about 10,000 tonnes of mined uranium a year.
According to Alexey Grigoriev, director-general of Tenex, the export arm of Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, uranium extracted from Soviet-era nuclear missiles “lights up every 10th bulb in the US.”
Last week in Moscow, Tenex signed an agreement with Rio Tinto’s Energy Resources Australia (ERA) to make a trial shipment of Australian uranium to Russia in the third quarter of this year. The uranium will be reprocessed and then re-exported as enriched uranium hexafluoride to an overseas power utility.
While ERA’s Ranger mine and BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam are significant global suppliers from Australia, the world’s single biggest mine is Cameco’s McArthur River mine in Canada, which produced just under 8500 tonnes of yellowcake in 2011. Other large mines are Rossing in Namibia and Krasnokamensk in Russia. Niger’s 5000-tonne a year Imouraren mine, operated by French state-owned nuclear giant Areva, is expected to begin producing in 2014.
Cameco is also the operator and 50 per cent owner of Cigar Lake, the biggest undeveloped source of high-grade uranium in the world. The mine, in Canada’s Athabasca Basin, was due to begin production in 2011, but floods in 2006 and again in 2008 delayed that. First output is now expected in 2013, with full production by 2017.
Cameco’s partners are Areva, the Japanese power company Tepco and energy company Idemitsu.
If Cigar Lake, Imouraren or other large mines suffer further delays, junior miners such as South Australia-based Toro Energy stand to play a role in the global supply chain.
Late last month, Toro Energy won an approval recommendation from Western Australia’s environmental protection authority for its Wiluna uranium project, about 950km northeast of Perth. That should roll through into approvals from state and federal environment ministers later this year, though an agreement with the local indigenous community is also required.
At the World Mining Investment Congress in London recently, Toro’s managing director Greg Hall outlined the game plan for Wiluna, which involves trucking yellowcake from the West Australian desert to Adelaide. Hall said the company hoped to be in production by 2014, with annual output of 1.8 million pounds a year at a cash cost of $30 a pound.
Uranium currently sells for $51 a pound, or about $112,000 a tonne.
Hall said Toro had been talking to Asian customers and potential equity partners for some time. The company’s finance target is $200 million of equity and $100 million of debt to get its projects up and running.
Hall said Wiluna was just a tenth the size of the world’s biggest mines, but global supply was limited and operations such Toro’s filled a niche. He said there was a big debate in Japan about the future role of nuclear power there, but it was “costing the earth” for Japan to import LNG and coal to run its power stations.
Prefectural authorities are expected to give the green light this week to restart two of Japan’s 50 idled nuclear reactors. They are at Oi, in Fukui prefecture on the west coast of the country.
Power from the Oi plant is needed for the heavily populated Kansai region around Osaka as Japan prepares for the (northern) summer season, when power consumption soars.
Last Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said nuclear power was vital for Japan’s energy needs, and urged the restarting of the Oi No. 3 and No. 4 reactors.
June 4, 2012 - Two transactions are reported this week in the spot uranium market. Traders and financial entities acted as buyers and sellers in these transactions. While mid- and long-term demand has been robust, spot uranium demand remains extremely thin with few sales opportunities for sellers seeking to conclude spot transactions.
Several utilities have reached decisions in their mid-term evaluations and there is an expectation that market activity may increase as market participants awaiting feedback on outstanding tenders re-enter the market on either the buy or sell side as a result of these awards.
Australian uranium Explorer A-Cap Resources has successfully upgraded the global JORC Resource at the company’s Letlhakane Uranium Project in Botswana by 35%, with the project now ranked as one of the world’s largest undeveloped uranium deposits.
The company is now focused on completing a Bankable Feasibility Study and bringing Letlhakane into early production.
Letlhakane now hosts a global resource of 1.04 billion tonnes at 153 parts per million (ppm) uranium for 351.8 million pounds of uranium contained, based on a 100ppm uranium cut-off grade.
Within this resource, A-Cap has defined a higher grade resource of 143.2 million tonnes at 284ppm uranium for 89.7 million pounds of uranium contained.
Importantly, when taking into account a 200ppm uranium cut-off grade, the global resource is 143.2 million tonnes at 284ppm uranium for 89.7 million pounds uranium, a strategic resource in the current market.
There is potential for further resource growth at Letlhakane, with the resource area remaining open along the western boundary.
In addition to its size, Letlhakane has location on its side, with road, rail, power and water all readily available in the area, coupled with the stability of Botswana as a mining jurisdiction.