Return of nuclear energy

The new Basic Energy Plan is a clear departure from the zero-nuclear policy set by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

In an expected reversal of previous government’s plan to mothball nuclear power plants, the government in Japan headed by Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officially abandoned the zero-nuclear goal of the previous administration on April 11 by adopting a new basic energy policy that pledges to push for restarting the reactors idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns.

The new Basic Energy Plan, revised about every three years, is a clear departure from the zero-nuclear policy set by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ had pledged to abolish all nuclear power plants by the 2030s.

The Basic Energy Plan now sets the stage for the government to move ahead to restart nuclear reactors and sets policies for the next 20 years. The Plan calls nuclear energy an “important source of base load power” for Japan and states that nuclear reactors, all 48 of which are remaining idle now, should be restarted once they have cleared safety screening by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). The screenings are based on standards established by the NRA after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

It is open to question when and how the idled nuclear power plants will pass what the government itself says, world’s toughest regulatory standards. In the 78-page policy paper, the government used the term ‘base-load electricity sources’ to describe types that can stably generate power at a low cost 24 hours a day, while pledging to “reduce nuclear dependence.” Since the pro-nuclear LDP returned to power in December 2012, the move had been expected.

But the government spent several more months than initially expected before deciding on the plan as draft documents stirred controversy among lawmakers who saw them as too strongly pro-nuclear in tone. The NRA is conducting tests on reactors 1 and 2 of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Satsuma Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture. The Sendai Plant might become the first to restart since the Fukushima crisis began, possibly in August or later.

The new policy also says the government will “lower as much as possible” Japan’s dependency on nuclear power and push for the development of more renewable energies, including wind, geothermal heat and solar power, in particular over the next three years. The plan avoids setting a specific goal for a desirable ratio of energy sources for Japan, including oil, gas, nuclear power and renewable energy. The plan focussed mainly on Japan’s need to secure stable sources, including nuclear, despite the public’s clear anti-nuclear sentiment.

According to Toshimitsu Motegi, the economy, trade and industry minister in charge of crafting the plan, the policy document details “a basic policy on the medium to long-term measures to rebuild a reasonable energy policy that supports people’s lives and economic activities.”

The plan envisages that this percentage should be reduced as much as possible by expanding renewable energy and achieving greater energy efficiency. However, there are no specific targets to be met from renewable, merely saying that the nation should seek to expand the share of renewable power beyond the government targets of 13.5 per cent in 2020 and 20 per cent in 2030.
Irresponsible idea

These targets were set before the 2011 disaster. Abe had made it clear after coming to power in December 2012 that his government would reject the DPJ’s bid to phase out nuclear power. When former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stirred up a debate in 2013 that Japan should halt nuclear power generation in future, Abe dismissed the idea as irresponsible. He argued that by keeping the nuclear plants idle, Japan has to increase fuel imports needed to run thermal power plants, thereby costing the nation trillions of yen each year and therefore does not make any economic sense.

Now it transpires that Abe was navigating a difficult path in strategising his government’s energy policy.

First, he had to take into account the sentiment of some 135,000 people that remain still displaced from their homes due to the radiation spread three years on and Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government still struggling to control the massive amount of radiation-contaminated water at the crippled plant. Second, though the draft on the energy plan was ready in December 2013, he had to defer its release when nuclear power unexpectedly became an issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in February and had to make some changes.

However, the basic thrust of the plan that economic consideration overrules all other considerations supporting nuclear energy as a key source of power supply remains intact. Notwithstanding Abe’s ambitious but pragmatic approach to the nation’s future energy needs, there are doubts within Japan if the new situation complies to or improves upon the realities and if the NRA will complete screening and give go ahead to a total of 17 nuclear reactors at 10 plants around the country to restart operations. Though safety requirements are sharply tightened post-3/2011 disasters, Abe government is hopeful that some of the reactors will be given safety clearances by the NRA before the coming summer.

Under the new NRA rules, the operating life of a nuclear power reactor is limited to 40 years, but it can be extended for another 20 years as an exception if the reactor clears a special inspection of the condition of its equipment.

Though the new energy plan makes no mention of whether the construction of new nuclear power reactors will be approved, it leaves open to the possibility of allowing the construction of new reactors when it says that the government will “assess the amount of nuclear power that should be secured” to ensure a stable energy supply in a resource-scarce country. Nuclear as a source of energy is going to stay in Japan, so it appears.


(The writer is a fellow at the Reitaku University, Japan)

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