Debating nuclear energy

Nuclear energy remains a divisive issue more than three years after the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has reversed its predecessor’s policy of seeking a phaseout of nuclear power and is pushing to restart nuclear reactors that have been idled in the wake of the 2011 disaster, even as media surveys show a majority of the public remains opposed to reactivating the plants.

The Dec. 14 Lower House election provides voters with a chance to have their say in the nation’s energy policy, which not only affects their everyday lives but will have broad long-term social and economic repercussions. The candidates and their parties in the race are urged to clarify their positions and voters should not hesitate to make their voices heard.

The administration’s energy policy sounds self-contradictory. Abe pledges to reduce the nation’s energy dependency on nuclear power “as much as possible” — without setting specific targets or a timetable — through energy-saving efforts and introduction of renewable energy. But his government’s basic energy plan adopted in April — the first since the Fukushima disaster — calls nuclear power an “important baseload source” of the nation’s electricity supply. The prime minister is also leading efforts to promote the sale of Japan’s nuclear power technology overseas.

While the same plan calls for maximum efforts in the three years from 2013 to increase Japan’s supply of renewable energy, the administration has begun reviewing the feed-in tariff system — introduced in 2012 to promote renewable energy — after power companies stopped buying solar power under the system on the grounds that increased purchase of such energy could disrupt the stability of the power supply. At the same time it is pursuing the liberalization of a power industry long dominated by regional monopolies, the administration is reportedly weighing measures to help the utilities maintain their nuclear power plants after they’re exposed to greater price competition through the deregulation. Which direction the administration is headed in its policy on nuclear energy remains unclear.

Today, all of the nation’s 48 nuclear power reactors remain offline. Power companies have applied for the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening of their plans to restart 20 of them — under the safety standards updated in the wake of the 2011 disaster — and Kyushu Electric Power Co. has cleared the NRA screening and obtained local governments’ nod to restart the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at its Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which promised in the 2012 election to “seek to establish a socio-economic structure that does not need to rely on nuclear power,” says this time that it will push for reactivating plants that have been approved by the NRA under what Abe once touted as the world’s most stringent safety regulations.

The power firms seek to restart the idled reactors as they face the heavy cost of imported fuel to increase output at thermal power plants to compensate for the shutdown of nuclear power plants. Restarting a single nuclear reactor will save them an estimated ¥10 billion to ¥15 billion a month in fuel expenses. Abe has argued that the nation is losing trillions of yen each year because of the added fuel imports, whose cost has also been exacerbated by the yen’s fall against the dollar. The business sector also decries the higher cost of electricity and calls for the restart of nuclear reactors.

The process is being pushed forward while more than 120,000 people in Fukushima remain displaced from their homes due to radiation fallout from the 2011 meltdowns at the No. 1 plant and as Tepco continues to struggle in its bid to clean up the mess. The blind faith in the safety of nuclear power has been shattered by the Fukushima disaster, and the much-touted cost advantage of nuclear energy over other sources appear to be in doubt.

The administration has not provided convincing answers to various key questions posed over nuclear power, including the doubts over its policy of seeking a nuclear fuel cycle or the pending issue of permanent disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The opinions expressed in media polls show that a large part of the public is still not convinced of the safety of nuclear energy.

When the DPJ-led government decided in 2012 to seek phasing out nuclear power in Japan by the 2030s, it took the unusual step of sounding out popular opinion on the issue through surveys and public gatherings. After taking power from the DPJ two years ago, the Abe administration reverted to the old ways of discussing nuclear energy issues in a closed circuit of interested groups and reversed the nuclear phaseout policy without setting a clear direction on what role nuclear power should play in the nation’s long-term energy plan.

Japan’s energy policy also shapes its actions on climate change, because the energy sector accounts for a major portion of the nation’s emissions of global warming gases such as carbon dioxide. The government came under international criticism last year when it replaced its plan for cuts to emissions by 2020, because its new “tentative” plan represented a net increase in emissions from the Kyoto Protocol base year of 1990. Officials said the plan was the best they could offer while the future of idled nuclear power plants remains uncertain.

Japan’s carbon emissions have in fact increased as the nation relied more on thermal power output after the Fukushima meltdowns. But the uncertainty over nuclear power, which does not emit carbon dioxide in power generation, should not be used as an excuse for inaction on efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Nor should Japan’s climate policy rely on nuclear energy, since it would be unrealistic to expect a return to the condition before 2011, when nuclear energy accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. Lawmakers and parties need to lay out energy plans that include measures to reduce emissions.

  • Richard Solomon

    This editorial is far too kind in its assessment of Abe’s energy policies. The latter are more than ‘self contradictory.’. Abe is hypocritical. More specially, his words sound measured and inclusive. But his actions more clearly indicate that he is going forward on a pro-nuclear power platform while only giving lip service to renewables and fuel efficiency.

    When spent fuel storage is taken into account, nuclear energy is neither safe nor clean. The majority of the Japanese public sees that. But Abe chooses to ignore their wishes. Just as with the secrecy laws, the reinterpretation of the Constitution regarding self defense, moving US bases in Okinawa Abe is exhibiting a pattern of anti-democratic decision making. He prefers to serve special interests rather than the general public.

    When will the electorate see this and vote LDP candidates out of office? Unless they do this min significant numbers, Abe will claim the election is a vindication of his policies and continue along the same path.

    Heaven help Japan if he does. At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I must note that the Japanese people will get what they deserve if they allow Abe and his pals to remain in power.

    • forsetiboston

      “the Japanese people will get what they deserve if they allow Abe and his pals to remain in power.”

      Particularly related to energy the Japanese have such a clear cut set of choices, correct? Like wind, solar, and geothermal which will not meet the demands of Japanese consumption.

      Let’s be realistic and face the fact that without nuclear power Japan is burning LNG, Coal, and bunker “c” in mass quantities. This is not only ALREADY impacting the Japanese air quality (live in/been to Tokyo recently?) it’s obvious to see.

      On top of environmental impacts there is a massive drain on the finances of the country, businesses and people. Oil/gas prices may be down, but not so much when your country does not have their own.

      Keep burning coal, and LNG, I’m sure that the increase in lung issues will surely offset all of the deaths that have happened as a result of Fukushima. I say lets hope Abes policies do work, Japan needs to take care of Japan at this point. I hope they do get what they deserve, a continued progression of an advanced nation. One with electric bullet trains, maglevs, and everything else you can image. Shinkansen doesn’t run on batteries nor can it wait for the wind to blow or sun to shine.

    • Sam Gilman

      Hello Richard,

      Could you give me sources for the deaths per TWh that you’re using to make this claim that nuclear power is not – compared to other methods – a safe way to produce electricity? Your view is completely at odds with any credible analysis I’ve seen, which place nuclear as – per unit of electricity – just about the safest method we have, and that is of course including the projected future figures from Chernobyl and other accidents.

      Thanks in advance.

  • rossdorn

    “Lawmakers and parties need to lay out energy plans….”

    They need to? Or, what will happen?

    That the people of Japan in 2014 no longer have a choice at elections is their own fault. Why would anything change as long election after election a mojority of these people elect the same….

    Start saying NO. You do not, or cannot? Well…. not my problem, yours!

  • Starviking

    It is amusing to see this editorial accuse the LDP of self-contradictory policies.

    It is well known that JT thinks that climate change is the most dangerous thing facing humanity. I agree with that.

    However, they vehemently oppose nuclear power, a technology which has provided low-greenhouse gas power for over half a century. They tout techologies unproven on large scales as the solution.

    My question is this: if JT thinks that the limiting of greenhouse emissions is the most important task facing us, then why not push renewables and nuclear?

    I fear the answer is that they have focussed on ‘green energy’ so much that it has becomema mantra. No facts or contrary opinions are allowed to intrude.

  • Chris Clancy

    The December 3 editorial “Debating nuclear
    energy” raises many issues on which high school students have been focusing –
    in English – for much of this year. The proposition for the 9th
    annual All Japan High School English Debate Tournament is “The Japanese
    government should abolish nuclear power plants.”

    The general affirmative stance in support
    of the proposition accords to the same public opinion questioning the safety of
    nuclear energy and the fact that so many residents of Fukushima remain
    displaced that the editorial mentions. It’s pretty hard to argue against the
    nuclear power plant accidents not being possible if nuclear power plants are
    abolished.

    Coming up with a convincing negative
    argument against the government abolishing nuclear power plants is the added
    challenge for Japanese students debating in English this year. Debate teams
    have attempted to play the carbon dioxide emissions card. CO2 causes global warming and climate change. More severe and frequently
    occurring extreme weather events have occurred as a result. Furthermore, the
    World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 deaths each year can be
    attributed to these climactic changes resulting from global warming. This number
    makes disasters resulting from infrequent and isolated nuclear power plant
    accidents pale in comparison. We have a moral duty to decrease carbon emissions
    worldwide. Nations must not revert to dependency on traditional energy
    generation from the burning of fossil fuels. Current world energy needs cannot likely
    be met without nuclear power. For these reasons, it might be argued, Japan
    should not abolish nuclear power plants.

    Please consider visiting the Shizuoka
    University of Art and Culture in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture for the 9th
    annual High School English Debate Tournament finals this weekend. Not only will
    informed debate take place, but a remarkable element of Japanese high school
    education will be on display.