Energy plan looks to the past

The government’s new Basic Energy Plan, adopted by the Abe administration in a Cabinet meeting on Friday, fails to set a clear new direction for the nation’s energy policy, which has been clouded by doubts over the safety of nuclear power ever since three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant melted down in March 2011.

Reversing the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration’s policy of seeking a phaseout of nuclear power by the 2030s, the plan calls nuclear energy an “important source of base load power” for Japan and states that nuclear reactors — all 48 of which are now idled — should be restarted once they have cleared safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

The plan also states that Japan’s dependence on nuclear power — which at its peak accounted for about 30 percent of the nation’s total electricity supply — should be reduced as much as possible by expanding renewable energy and achieving greater energy efficiency.

However, drafters of the plan balked at giving specific targets for increasing renewable energy. It merely says that the nation should seek to expand the share of renewable power beyond the government targets of 13.5 percent in 2020 and 20 percent in 2030, which were set before the 2011 disasters.

The national energy plan is renewed roughly every three years. This one is the first since the Liberal Democratic Party came back to power in late 2012. The previous plan, adopted under the DPJ rule before the 2011 Fukushima crisis, called for increasing the share of nuclear power in the nation’s electricity generation to more than 50 percent by 2030 — mainly as a measure to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Since returning to the government’s helm, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made clear his rejection of the DPJ’s bid to phase out nuclear power. When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stirred up debate last year by advocating an immediate halt to nuclear power, Abe dismissed the idea as irresponsible, reiterating that the increased fuel imports needed to run thermal power plants while nuclear plants remain idled were costing Japan trillions of yen each year.

As indicated by media surveys, public wariness about the safety of nuclear power continues. More than 135,000 people remain displaced from their homes due to the radiation fallout three years on, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government are still struggling to control the massive amount of radiation-contaminated water at the crippled plant.

After a trade ministry panel compiled a draft of the energy plan in December, the Abe administration and the ruling coalition, apparently mindful of such public sentiments, attempted to dilute the emphasis on nuclear power by making cosmetic changes to the text. The work was sidelined when nuclear power unexpectedly became an issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in February, and was delayed even further when criticism from within the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito necessitated more changes.

The basic thrust of the plan remains unchanged — that Japan, due to economic considerations, needs to retain nuclear energy as a key source of power supply.

It is questionable whether the plan actually matches the post-2011 realities of nuclear power generation in Japan. Currently the NRA is screening plans by power companies to restart a total of 17 nuclear reactors at 10 plants around the country. There is speculation that some of these reactors will be given safety clearances by the NRA as early as this summer. At the same time, it has become increasingly doubtful that many more of the 48 idled reactors will be reactivated.

Safety requirements on nuclear power plants were sharply tightened in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. Power companies need to ensure that the reactors can withstand maximum levels of stress from natural disasters such as earthquake and tsunamis. The assessment of quake risks at nuclear power plant sites, such as the presence of active faults under their premises, has been made more stringent.

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. Four of the 48 reactors are already more than 40 years old while another 11 are at least 35 years old. Extending the life of these aging reactors is likely to demand extra safety investments.

If no new reactors are built and all of the existing reactors are decommissioned after 40 years of operation, Japan will have no nuclear reactors by 2050. The new energy plan makes no mention of whether the construction of new nuclear power reactors will be approved.

The new energy plan also leaves unaddressed growing doubts about the decades-old policy of seeking a nuclear fuel cycle in which spent fuel from nuclear reactors would be reprocessed for use again in fast-breeder reactors and in some light water nuclear power plants. It keeps alive the trouble-prone Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, although commercialization of fast-breeder reactor technology by 2050 is no longer mentioned as a target.

Built at a cost of ¥1 trillion, Monju has been kept offline for much of the past two decades because of a series of accidents and problems. Maintenance alone for the plant costs ¥20 billion a year. The plan now characterizes the plant as a “hub for international research” on technologies such as reduction of the amount of high-level nuclear waste.

Completion of a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture — an important component of the nuclear fuel cycle — has long been delayed over a string of technical glitches. The construction cost alone tops ¥2 trillion.

Amid dim prospects of Monju resuming operation as a fast-breeder reactor and uncertainty over the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuels at other plants, starting up the Rokkasho plant would likely only add to the nation’s unused plutonium stockpiles. Even though viability of the fuel cycle policy is widely doubted today, the energy plan only hints at the possibility of a future review of the policy by calling for “medium-to-long-term flexibility” in its quest.

During its successful campaign to win back power in the December 2012 Lower House election, the LDP pledged to establish “a socio-economic structure that does not need to depend on nuclear power.” The new energy plan fails to present a road map for achieving this goal.