Japan’s energy policy is at a crossroads. The government’s basic energy plan revised in 2014 — after the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 plant led to the shutdown of most of the nation’s nuclear power reactors — continued the heavy reliance on nuclear power and the fossil fuel-based energy supply. But developments in the years since have cast further doubts on the policy’s viability, in particular its pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle program, while the large share of coal-fired thermal power plants in electricity production runs counter to the global trend toward a low-carbon society to fight climate change.
The policy seems incongruous with the reality surrounding nuclear power in this country, where restarts of idled reactors continue at a snail’s pace amid safety concerns, and the government’s bid for a nuclear fuel cycle remains elusive due to the failure or delays of costly projects. It is time for the policy to get a major overhaul that will significantly expand the role of renewable energy sources.
The basic plan adopted by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which overturned the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government’s call for a phaseout of nuclear power by the 2030s following the disaster in Fukushima, left a lot of ambiguities in the direction of the nation’s energy policy. While it called for reducing the dependency on nuclear power as much as possible and accelerating as much as possible the use of renewable sources such as solar and wind, it positioned nuclear energy as a low-cost and stable baseload power supply source.
A plan released a year later envisaged that nuclear power would account for 20 to 22 percent of the power supply in 2030 — down from 28 percent in the pre-Fukushima year of 2010 but not much different from the 22 to 24 percent allocated for renewable energy. It expects coal- and natural gas-fired plants to supply 26 percent and 27 percent of electricity, respectively.
The Abe administration and the power industry have sought to restart the idled reactors once they pass the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening under what the governments touts as the world’s most stringent safety regulations, which were introduced after the 2011 Fukushima crisis. So far, only five reactors run by Kyushu, Kansai and Shikoku Electric Power have been reactivated — although two of them, reactors No. 1 and 2 at Kansai Electric’s Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, were taken offline again last year following a court decision on a citizens’ request for halting their operation. Popular opposition to reopening nuclear plants due to safety concerns remains strong in media opinion polls. Tepco’s bid to reactivate its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, which it considers key to the firm’s reconstruction after the Fukushima disaster, is in doubt with the election last October of a new governor who is cautious toward its restart.
Last month, the government made a final decision to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — after pouring more than ¥1 trillion into the facility in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which was in operation for a mere 250 days after it first reached criticality in 1994. Monju, once billed as a dream reactor that produces more plutonium than it consumes as fuel, was deemed a key component of the nuclear fuel cycle program, in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed to extract plutonium for reuse as fuel.
Still, the government says it will not review its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle — saying that the program will be kept intact by using plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel at conventional nuclear power plants. But MOX fuel consumption at those plants remains low due to the slow restart of the idled reactors — Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant is the only one among those reactivated to use MOX fuel. Barely after putting an end to the Monju project, the government is also pushing for domestic development of a demonstration fast reactor — which is even closer to commercial development than the prototype reactor.
All the while, completion of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture continues to be pushed back — with the latest plan to get it operating in 2018 already in question. Since construction began in 1993, its completion has been delayed 23 times over a series of technical glitches, with the total cost expanding three times the original estimate to ¥2.2 trillion.
Also in December, the government disclosed that the total expense of dealing with the mess of the 2011 Tepco Fukushima debacle, including the cost of decommissioning the crippled plant, compensation for local residents and decontamination of areas hit by the fallout of radioactive substances, will hit ¥22 trillion. There are plans to add part of the compensation expenses, as well as the costs of other power companies that have been forced into decommissioning their aging reactors earlier than scheduled due to tightened regulations, onto electricity charges, thereby having consumers pay the price.
The government’s long-standing claim to the cost advantage of nuclear power over other energy sources must be reassessed and the energy policy should be reviewed based on a more pragmatic assessment of the prospect of nuclear power.