TOKYO: Japan's decision to restart two nuclear reactors idled for safety checks after the Fukushima catastrophe won't cut the country's spiraling fossil-fuel import bill unless more atomic units are brought back on line, traders and analysts said.
Japan's fuel purchases soared as reactors were shut down and put through safety checks after the meltdowns at Fukushima in March 2011, dragging the world's third-biggest economy into its first trade deficit in more than three decades.
The reactors at the Ohi plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Co each have a capacity of 1,180 megawatts and restarting them would reduce LNG usage by about 180,000 metric tons (198,416 tons) per month, according to Reuters calculations.
If the reactors are replacing oil-fired generation, Japan's crude requirements would fall by about 70,000 bpd.
But with summer approaching, households and business turn on air conditioners and boost electricity consumption despite some energy saving efforts from last year and Kansai Electric is expected to keep fossil-fuel power plants online.
"It's still not going to make a huge impact in reducing oil demand, which will rise in the next few months when power demand is higher," Alex Yap, oil analyst at FACTS Global Energy said.
Japan's demand for direct-burning crude and fuel oil may rise as much a 900,000 bpd without more reactors operating, up from a peak of 700,000 bpd in February, before the last unit shut down in May, he said.
"The restart of the nuclear plant will not affect demand that much," said a fuel oil trader in Singapore.
"Fuel oil demand will be cut if more reactors come on line though."
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three other ministers approved the startups at a meeting on Saturday in Tokyo. Noda has said the restarts are necessary to avoid damaging the world's third-largest economy.
The country's current frontline regulator, the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, has approved safety checks for the 890-megawatt No.3 reactor at the Ikata station operated by Shikoku Electric Power Co in southwestern Japan. The checks need to be approved by the Nuclear Safety Commission.
Next on the list for possible approval are two Hokkaido Electric Power Co reactors in Tomari, northern Japan and the No.2 reactor at the Shika station operated by Hokuriku Electric Power Co in western Japan.
These reactors have combined capacity of 2,364 megawatts.
"LNG demand will be supported by a recovery in city gas consumption and the shift of reliance by utilities on LNG away from nuclear power despite the expected restart of more reactors," said Yu Nagatomi, an economist at the Institute of Energy Economics Japan.
"Even though energy savings may cap electricity use, LNG demand for fiscal 2012/13 is unlikely to fall dramatically from a record 83 million metric tons in 2011/12," Nagatomi said. Japan's fiscal year runs from April through March.
Spot prices for Asian LNG eased toward US$17 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) for July cargoes this week as new supplies came onto the market, compared with less than US$10 before the disaster.
In May, when Japan went without nuclear power for the first time since 1970, power companies consumed a record 4.41 million metric tons equivalent of liquefied natural gas (LNG), worth an estimated US$3.7 billion.
Fuel oil use in the same month rose 169% from a year earlier at 220,900 barrels per day (bpd) and crude consumption was up 148% at 241,400 bpd. Japan's overall imports of crude totaled 3.7 million bpd in 2010.
With oil at about US$100 per barrel, that meant utilities spent US$748 million on crude imports alone during the month.
Prices of the sweet crude from Malaysia and Indonesia that is typically used for direct burning have risen to multi-year highs earlier this year, helped by the demand from Japanese power utilities. (Reuters/aph)
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