Stay on the nonnuclear path

Members of the Abe Cabinet have repeatedly hinted that the government will change the policy on energy and electric power set by the Democratic Party of Japan government. Trade and industry minister Mr. Toshimitsu Motegi said the government will review the DPJ government policy of ending in the 2030s the nation’s reliance on nuclear power generation when the Abe administration writes a new, long-term basic policy on energy.

The DPJ adopted the zero nuclear power policy after hearings and deliberative polls were held nationwide. During the campaign for the Dec. 16 Lower House election, the Liberal Democratic Party said only that it would make a decision on whether to restart nuclear reactors within three years. At the very least, therefore, the Abe government should listen to public opinion on nuclear power generation if it tries to change the current policy.

If Japan increases the weight of renewable energy sources in an attempt to reduce or end its reliance on nuclear power, electricity rates may rise, causing difficulty for consumers and enterprises. But if one considers the huge costs incurred by the 3/11 accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate — including some 160,000 people who still can’t return to their homes — and the fact that decontamination of vast areas of land is proceeding far slower than hoped, it doesn’t make any sense to continue nuclear power generation in this quake-prone country.

In addition, if nuclear power plants resume operation, storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel will soon be full, and there is no technology that can guarantee the long-term safe storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Deep underground disposal of such waste poses serious environmental and ethical problems for future generations. Nobody can know the durability — in 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years — of the materials used to encase high-level radioactive waste stored in geological layers.

It is unrealistic to go back to the situation that prevailed before the Fukushima disaster. Given the prevalence of earthquakes, the government should end its traditional policy of establishing large-scale power plants, nuclear or nonnuclear, in depopulated areas, and instead promote a policy of establishing many small-scale power plants utilizing green energy sources across the nation in combination with smart grids, so that electricity will be transmitted in a stable and efficient manner.

The government also should reform the electricity market by removing the electricity distribution function from the hands of major power companies. That would make it easier for new power generating entities to enter the market and thus increase competition.

As a short-term policy, the government and power companies should increase use of liquefied natural gas at thermal power stations since LNG produces less greenhouse gas than other fossil fuels. But power companies must strive to decrease import prices by engaging in tough negotiations with LNG suppliers and buying from a broader range of suppliers.