The new Basic Energy Plan endorsed last week that underscores the need to continue to use nuclear power, marking an important milestone in energy policy since the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster started.
But the content of the plan still appears open to debate. Specifics of the country’s future energy composition are lacking and in some aspects the plan can be seen as not sufficiently reflecting the lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis.
“Based on this policy, the government will move on to discuss the details . . . such as those on energy conservation, renewable energy and nuclear power,” Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Friday.
The plan offers few clues about what proportion of total electricity supply the government expects nuclear power to eventually account for, only suggesting that atomic power generation will be maintained but reliance on it will be reduced from the level before the crisis, which was about 30 percent.
With anti-nuclear sentiment among the public still significant, some lawmakers of the Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling bloc ally, New Komeito, have pressed the government to include numerical targets for renewable energy to highlight its seriousness about reducing reliance on nuclear energy, as a token of repentance over the meltdowns at the inadequately protected Fukushima plant.
But the move was watered down in the face of stiff resistance from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is pushing for the restart of reactors to curtail rising electricity costs for importing fossil fuels to boost thermal power generation.
As a result, the government added in the plan that it will aim to introduce renewable energy “farther above” the level aimed at in the past, including a footnote that renewables were expected to increase to 20 percent in 2030, or about 214 billion kilowatt-hours, based on a domestic energy outlook presented in 2010.
But doubts remain over whether such figures will have much significance, as they were decided before the nuclear crisis and the situation regarding renewable energy has largely changed since the launch of the so-called feed-in tariff program in July 2012, which offers incentives to promote renewable energy sources.
Another issue that has often been questioned in the plan is whether it is appropriate to define nuclear power as “cheap,” given that the Fukushima crisis has proved that costs to deal with a severe disaster could be colossal due to compensation payments, radiation cleanup work and the decommissioning of the stricken plant.
As backup material, the LDP-led government has repeatedly referred to a power generation cost assessment report compiled in December 2011 when the Democratic Party of Japan, the LDP’s rival, was in power.
The report showed that nuclear power generation costs ¥8.9 per kwh, including potential expenses associated with a severe nuclear accident, while thermal power generation costs using coal and liquefied natural gas were pegged between ¥9 and ¥11.
“The estimation shows that nuclear power is relatively cheap,” a METI official explained to LDP lawmakers in March, adding that the competitiveness of nuclear power will not change even if costs to cover damage from the Fukushima crisis double the figure projected in the report as a model case, which was ¥5.8 trillion.
But anti-nuclear professors who have been involved in the cost assessment activities said the government appears to be overlooking an important message they wanted to deliver about nuclear power.
“The ¥8.9 figure is only the minimum. . . . We should take note of the fact that nuclear power costs are uncertain — that is to say, we cannot tell how high they could be,” said Kenichi Oshima, an environmental economics professor at Ritsumeikan University.
Oshima is confident that nuclear power will not be “cheap” if the figures are recalculated in line with the actual situation now, not only because the costs of dealing with the Fukushima disaster are rising but also because utilities are investing more in their reactors to improve their safety so that they will be allowed to restart.
The apparent difficulty for utilities to generate as much electricity from nuclear power as they did before the crisis is also a factor that will lead to a rise in the price per kwh, Oshima added.
As an example of how different preconditions can lead to a spike in power generation costs, the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation said in a report released in December that nuclear power costs could rise up to ¥17.4 per kwh, on the assumption that accident-related expenses total ¥20 trillion and the latest safety equipment is installed in the country’s newly built reactors.
“If the government wants to say it needs nuclear power, it should do it in a way that convinces the public. But it did not even carry out its own costs assessment, apparently fearing that some inconvenient results may show up,” Oshima said.
“The latest plan says nuclear power is economically efficient and environment-friendly (because it does not emit greenhouse gases), just as it did in the previous 2010 energy plan. In my view, the status of nuclear power has not changed in the government’s eyes from before the nuclear crisis,” he added.