While Japan slowly recovers from last year’s tsunami and nuclear accident, its big trading companies have managed to find some business opportunities in the wake of the disaster.

The nation’s top trading houses – which have traditionally supplied the resource-poor nation with everything from coal to bananas – unveiled quarterly results last week that illustrated how they have benefited from the almost complete shutdown of nuclear power in Japan.

While overall profits fell due to weaker metals markets, the big five’s combined net income of $4.7bn was equivalent to a fifth of the entire April-June profit made by the Nikkei 225 companies, excluding banks, as many of Japan’s exporters continued to struggle from the effects of a strong yen and weak external demand.

In the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March last year, Japan progressively turned off all 50 of its surviving nuclear reactors. Two were switched back on last month, but the country faces a growing debate over the future role that nuclear power should play in its energy supply, leading to questions over when, or if, the other reactors could return to service.

Lacking domestic fossil fuel sources, Japan has been forced to rely more heavily on expensive imports of oil and liquefied natural gas to fuel conventional power plants. This has made the nation more vulnerable to supply shocks, which has prompted the trading companies to secure resources by investing more aggressively in upstream energy assets.

Each of the big five traders reported resilient first-quarter performances from their energy divisions. The energy businesses at Mitsubishi Corp and Mitsui & Co, the two largest trading houses by market capitalisation, were the standout performers. At Mitsubishi, net income from energy accounted for more than half of the total of Y98bn ($1.25bn), from just over a quarter a year earlier.

Mitsubishi has been the most active acquirer of energy assets this year, doing half a dozen big deals, including the joint purchase with Mitsui of almost a sixth of Woodside Petroleum’s Browse LNG project in Australia.

Last week, Sumitomo Corp, the trading house with the smallest exposure to energy, confirmed it would invest about $2bn in Texas shale oilfields after agreeing to buy big stakes in assets from Devon Energy, the Oklahoma-based operator.

“If higher fuel imports are a long-term trend, then it is better [for the trading companies] to invest in reserves themselves,” said Eric Nishimura, analyst at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo.

LNG, a cleaner burning fuel than coal and oil, seems a particularly safe bet. Gas-fired generation has risen to about half of Japan’s total since the nuclear accident, according to CLSA. Japan is now sourcing LNG from every exporter except Libya and has even taken excess cargoes from non-producing nations such as Belgium.

Marubeni, the smallest of Japan’s trading houses, saw Y780bn of energy trades in the three months to June, up 13 per cent from a year earlier, thanks mainly to increased imports of LNG. In Russia, an Itochu-led consortium is conducting feasibility studies with Gazprom on the co-development of a new LNG plant in Vladivostok.

“We expect the current level of LNG imports to continue,” said Yuji Seiya, a senior executive in Itochu’s energy division.

The trading companies are pushing ahead as the government urges the public to voice their views on how much nuclear power Japan should have. An advisory committee has put forward three options for nuclear power, ranging from zero to 20 to 25 per cent of the nation’s total energy mix by 2030, compared to about 26 per cent in fiscal 2010.

In a series of public hearings across the country in recent weeks, most citizens who expressed a desire to speak supported the zero option, the government said on Saturday. Lawmakers are scheduled to make a decision on a national energy strategy later this month after taking into account the views of the population.

According to Nomura, assuming that Japan does not switch on any more nuclear power plants, its LNG consumption in the year through March 2012 could reach 66.9m tonnes, an increase of more than 60 per cent from two years ago.

Masakazu Toyoda, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics think-tank, said that in the wake of Fukushima, a bigger official role for gas looks inevitable.

“We’re the unquestioned world leader in LNG consumption,” he said. “We need to find sufficient supply to meet demand.”

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