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.