• Kyodo

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As the government sounds out the public about Japan’s nuclear options, the intermediate option of reducing the nation’s dependence on atomic energy to 15 percent by 2030 is winning favor.

If the government’s policy to “basically” limit the service life of reactors to 40 years is strictly adhered to, as stated recently by Shunichi Tanaka, the candidate to head the new nuclear regulatory authority, their number will fall to 20 from 50 by 2030.

If the remaining reactors operate at 80 percent of capacity and no new ones are built, nuclear power would account for 15 percent of Japan’s total energy supply. In fiscal 2010, the figure stood at 26 percent.

“We should strictly check nuclear reactors and not allow those beyond 40 years old to operate,” Tanaka, a former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, told members of the Lower House Steering Committee on Wednesday.

Given that the 15 percent option can be achieved simply by decommissioning reactors once they reach the 40-year limit, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono also has indicated his support, calling it a base scenario.

The government had planned to compile a new energy policy this month after holding public meetings nationwide to gather opinions on three scenarios for nuclear energy use by 2030: zero, 15 percent, and 20 to 25 percent. But in the face of growing criticism that it is drafting the policy too hastily, it may delay an announcement beyond August.

The 20 to 25 percent scenario — favored by the power industry — requires new reactors and would do little to change Japan’s reliance on atomic energy from levels seen before last year’s meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. It may also face strong public opposition as protests against nuclear power snowball.

Meanwhile, abolishing atomic energy altogether is expected to raise household electricity bills following the launch in July of a system requiring utilities to purchase all power generated from solar and other renewable energy sources at preset premiums, with permission to pass the costs onto consumers.

Households that usually pay ¥10,000 per month could see bills more than double, given that they could be paying as much as ¥11,000 more by 2030 if nuclear power is scrapped completely, the government said. The hike compares with an estimated increase of up to ¥8,000 for both the 15 percent and 20 to 25 percent options.

Kenji Yamaji, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said he supports the 20 to 25 percent scenario because nuclear power can contribute to Japan’s energy security and economy, as well as efforts to combat global warming, in a well-balanced manner.

“Once the fuel is loaded, nuclear power plants can operate more than a year without a refill,” Yamaji said. “By maintaining nuclear power generation, (Japan) can also gain an upper hand during price negotiations when buying fossil fuel from overseas.”

Hiroshi Takahashi, a research fellow of the Fujitsu Research Institute, disagrees.

“Although nuclear power had a certain role to play during the transition period from fossil fuels to renewable energy, it has already fulfilled that function,” he said.

Noting that the Fukushima crisis underscored Japan’s inability to deal with a nuclear catastrophe on its own, Takahashi said the nation should make better use of renewable power because it has abundant geothermal energy sources and considerable potential to harness wind power at sea.

He said Japan should boost its energy self-sufficiency rate by increasing its use of clean energy.

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