* Jan crude imports fall 2.1 pct from yr earlier
* Jan thermal coal imports rise 7.9 pct from yr ago
* Govt asks utilities to mull ways to save peak-hour demand
(Recasts, adds details on power demand)
TOKYO, Feb 20 Japan's imports of liquefied
natural gas (LNG) soared to a record high in January mainly to
fuel electricity generation, helping make up for dwindling use
of nuclear power due to the Fukushima radiation crisis.
But imports of comparatively more expensive crude oil by
Japan, the world's biggest LNG importer and the third-biggest
oil user, fell 2.1 percent from a year earlier, down for the
third month in a row, government data showed on Monday.
The volume of customs-cleared LNG imports rose 28.2 percent
from a year earlier. The LNG imports, mainly from Qatar and
Malaysia, totalled 8.15 million tonnes in January, exceeding the
previous record of 7.545 million tonnes set last August.
The country's 10 regional electricity utilities consumed a
record amount of gas for power generation in January, industry
data has shown. Apart from electricity utilities, city gas
suppliers also import LNG.
Japan's imports of thermal coal for power generation rose
7.9 percent from a year earlier to 10.03 million tonnes,
preliminary data from the Ministry of Finance also showed.
In contrast, Japan imported 18.83 million kilolitres (3.82
million barrels per day) of crude oil last month, down 2.1
percent from a year earlier, the data showed.
That compared with 19.84 million kl imported in December.
More details, including crude suppliers, will be available
when the Ministry of Finance announces final data on Feb. 27.
Meanwhile Japan is seeking an exemption from U.S. sanctions
on Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme, and most Japanese
refiners have yet to decide annual term contracts with Iran for
this year, although they have been reducing buying from the
world's fifth-largest crude exporter for the past few years.
Japan's oil demand has been in a downtrend for more than 10
years as the population ages, fuel efficiency improves and
energy sources diversify from costly oil to cleaner fuels such
By the end of January, only three of Japan's 54 nuclear
reactors were in operation amid safety concerns after the March
earthquake and tsunami triggered a radiation crisis at Tokyo
Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant,
leading to widespread contamination and mass evacuations.
Since then no reactors shut for regular
maintenance have restarted as they need to meet new safety
checks and receive clearance from both the central and local
Without such approval, all Japan's reactors could be shut by
the end of April.
The prospect of being without nuclear power has raised fears
of forced power rationing and temporary blackouts in the summer,
when air conditioning puts extra strains on supply.
But Trade Minister Yukio Edano has said safety takes
precedence over reactor restarts and that even if all the
reactors are shut there is a good chance the nation can cope
without forcing mandatory cuts on large users of the kind that
were imposed last summer.
The government is considering how to avoid power shortages
in the summer, when it estimates the nationwide power supply
could fall 7 percent below demand if no reactors are online.
Since it is difficult to raise overall supply capacity
drastically in the coming months, the government is asking power
utilities to come up with a variety of pricing incentives to
encourage large users to reduce peak-hour demand, a trade
ministry official said.
(Reporting by Risa Maeda; Editing by Michael Watson)