The Abe administration seems to be reverting to an old energy policy by revisiting the old policymaking process. The draft of the nation’s new Basic Energy Plan, put together by the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, states that nuclear power will remain an important source of energy for Japan after all, because it is said to be economically viable — even in light of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The draft marks a turnaround from the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration’s policy of phasing out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s. It is the outcome of discussions among interested parties and experts appointed by the bureaucracy, with bureaucrats setting the direction of the discussions.
It is a return to the same old policymaking process conducted under the previous rule of the Liberal Democratic Party. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to formalize the plan as early as January.
According to the draft approved by a METI panel on Dec. 13, nuclear energy is an “important base-load power source that serves as a foundation” for the stability of Japan’s energy supply, because of its “excellent supply stability and efficiency, low operation cost” and because it does not emit greenhouse gases in the process of power generation. Currently idled nuclear power plants are to be restarted once their safety has been confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the draft says.
The draft goes on to say that the government should “steadily promote” the nuclear fuel cycle of reprocessing spent fuel, use plutonium-mixed fuel at nuclear power plants and take the lead in selecting candidate sites for disposal of high-level radioactive nuclear wastes, instead of waiting for willing host municipalities to come forward.
Such an evaluation of nuclear power in the draft is oblivious to what has happened after the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The disaster showed that nuclear power generation can be disrupted for an extended period in case of severe accidents or major troubles.
Safety concerns in the wake of the Fukushima disasters have forced most of the nation’s nuclear power plants offline after they were halted for regular inspection.
Trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi told the panel’s first meeting in March that stable supplies and cost reductions will be key factors that set the direction of the nation’s energy policy.
Japan cannot go without nuclear power because increased fossil fuel imports for thermal power generation to make up for the shutdowns of nuclear reactors are costing the nation ¥3.6 trillion a year, which resulted in higher electricity charges and are encouraging companies to either transfer production abroad or shut down business, the draft says.
The draft does not answer doubts cast by the Fukushima disaster about the cost advantage of nuclear power that has long been touted by the government. Additional safety requirements under the new NRA standards will increase construction expenses, and the costs of setting aside reserves for future decommissioning as well as possible compensation for severe accidents are likely to pile up.
Roughly 140,000 people from Fukushima prefecture remain forced out of their hometowns more than two years after the meltdowns, and the massive costs of compensating for the evacuees — in addition to the costs of decontamination and dealing with the mess at the crippled plant — have been too heavy for Tepco alone to cover. Taxpayer money has had to be injected to continue reconstruction.
Aside from emphasizing the importance of nuclear power, much is left vague in the draft energy plan. It does not set any targets on the share of each component of the nation’s energy mix. It says reliance on nuclear energy will be “reduced as much as possible” through introduction of more renewable energy sources and promoting highly efficient thermal power generation.
It pledges to accelerate “to the maximum” the introduction of renewable energy within the next three years, but it does not provide any specifics on how to achieve that.
By omission, the draft policy leaves room for construction of new nuclear power plants or additional reactors at existing plants, which the DPJ-led administration had ruled out.
The current Basic Energy Plan, adopted in 2010, called for increasing the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity generation from 30 percent to 50 percent by 2030, in support of a plan laid out by the administration of then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020.
In reviewing the energy policy after the Fukushima crisis, the DPJ-led government used an unconventional method of fielding broad opinions from the public through a series of opinion surveys and public hearings held across the country. As a result, it adopted a policy of phasing out nuclear power generation in Japan by the end of the 2030s based on the majority opinion of the tens of thousands of people who had given their comments, although it did not revise the Basic Energy Plan to implement the policy.
The process marked a departure from the way energy policy was determined through discussions among trade ministry bureaucracy and a handful of members of the ministry’s advisory panel appointed by the bureaucrats.
When the LDP came back to power in December 2012, the Abe administration quickly indicated that the DPJ’s nuclear phaseout policy would be scrapped. A 15-member panel of experts at METI’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency was tasked with discussing the new Basic Energy Plan.
Members of another panel at the agency who led energy policy discussions during the DPJ’s rule and supported nuclear energy phaseout were left out of the discussions. Most of the new panel members were reportedly in favor of nuclear power, and no public hearing was held to field opinions from outside the panel.
The Abe administration is urged to listen to the opinions of the broad public, a majority of which, according to media polls, still oppose restarting the idled nuclear power plants.
To address people’s concerns over nuclear energy and their distrust toward government and the power industry, which was created — as the draft plan says — by the Fukushima crisis, the administration should not justify the use of nuclear power.
It does need to lay down a clear road map to a “socio-economic structure that does not have to rely on nuclear power” — as the LDP itself pledged to provide in its election campaign that put the party back to power a year ago.