Reactor closures to test Abe's green energy pledges

by Chisaki Watanabe and Emi Urabe


Japan’s plan to mothball at least five aging nuclear reactors highlights the challenge Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces as his administration debates how to replace lost electricity generation with power sources that are cheap, clean and safe.

The decision announced by the reactors’ operators last month to decommission the plants, all dating from the 1970s, will eliminate output equivalent to about 65 percent of the power produced by all the solar panels currently installed nationwide. That’s even after solar use has surged, making Japan the second-biggest solar market in the world for two years running.

The policies are under a microscope as Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party indicated earlier this month it wants to see nuclear energy play a prominent role in generating the nation’s electricity, a plan opposed by most voters following the 2011 meltdowns in Fukushima. In the meantime, policymakers are wrestling with how to mix in renewables with traditional forms of energy and determining what scale of greenhouse gas cuts it can promise for a United Nations deal on global warming this year.

“It is possible to partially replace nuclear with clean energy, but we need to turn to coal at the moment,” said Keigo Akimoto, chief researcher at Kyoto-based Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth. “I support increasing renewables. We should not be misguided about the scale.”

The implications are global, since countries such as the United States and Germany face the question of what to do with their own aging atomic plants. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that her country would gradually turn off all nuclear. The reactor fleet in the U.S. is one of the oldest in the world, and a wave of retirements is expected beginning in the 2030s, the International Energy Agency estimates.

Environmentalists in Japan, mindful of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster, say the country has shown it can do without nuclear through efficiency gains and renewables.

Utilities, meanwhile, say they’re having difficulty accommodating all the new electricity from clean sources such as solar that is testing their grids.

Japan’s biggest business lobbies argue industry can’t do without nuclear power and the steady supply of reliable power it produces. The nation’s 48 viable reactors are shuttered pending new safety checks by the nation’s regulator.

“The most important thing is to optimize different power sources such as nuclear, thermal and renewables,” Hajimu Yamana, a professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, said at a meeting at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on March 30. The ministry oversees the nuclear sector.

For all the concerns about the safety of nuclear energy, one fact is unassailable: Since the triple meltdown, the nation’s utilities are getting the bulk of their electricity from fossil fuels, despite a government-backed push to expand sources of renewable energy such as solar.

The five reactors that the utilities said in March they planned to decommission, among the smallest and oldest in Japan, annually produced about 13 terawatt-hours on average before the 2011 disaster, according to Bloomberg calculations using data supplied by the plant operators. Compare that with contributions from solar, which totaled 19.9 terawatt-hours in the year to March 31, based on estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“We are at a crossroads, and yet we are still evaluating power sources in the same way we did before the earthquake,” said Yasuko Kono, secretary-general of Shodanren, a union of consumer groups urging policymakers to consider the potential of renewables and energy savings. “The choices we will make will depend greatly on how we look at safety.”

The Abe government is under increasing pressure to set a long-term plan for how much electricity should come from what sources. Divided views on nuclear’s role are preventing the nation’s policymakers from making international pledges on greenhouse gas emissions ahead of climate talks in December.

“Our discussions on nuclear power have been focusing too much on negative aspects,” Kyoto University’s Yamana said. “Four years have passed and we need to look at nuclear calmly,” he said, adding that atomic power helps Japan cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear’s share of the electricity mix is at the center of the policy debate. In fiscal 2010, the nation derived nearly 30 percent of its power from nuclear while renewables provided almost 10 percent, with the majority of that coming from hydropower.

Four years after the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the public remains cautious about nuclear.

According to a March poll by the Nikkei newspaper and TV Tokyo, 62 percent of respondents said reactors shouldn’t be restarted, while 27 percent supported the resumption of nuclear power.

Meanwhile, power rates have risen 20 percent for homes and 30 percent for industry use since the nuclear crisis began in March 2011, according to date from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Keidanren, the nation’s top business lobby, said April 6 that nuclear power should supply more than 25 percent of electricity by 2030, while renewables should be around 15 percent.

The panel of LDP lawmakers that presented their findings to Abe on Tuesday recommended the nation get its electricity from base-load sources on a par with other developed countries, which is currently above 60 percent.

“For utilities, there is no economic incentive to add clean energy,” said Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, a Bloomberg energy finance analyst in Tokyo. He said Japan’s current approach may benefit utilities in the short term.

“In the long term, it hurts the country including manufacturers,” as domestic companies may miss out on opportunities to compete in fully liberalized markets abroad because they lack such experience at home, he said.

If all of the nation’s reactors are to be decommissioned after the 40 years considered the operational age limit by Japanese regulators, only 20 will be in working condition by 2030, accounting for about 15 percent of power supply, according to an analysis by Keizai Doyukai. To keep nuclear capacity at 20 percent, utilities would need to seek government approval to extend operations, the group said in a report.

“Renewable energy has to be more stable and cheaper, and energy storage needs to develop further,” Teruo Asada, who heads the group and also serves as the chairman of major trading company Marubeni Corp., told reporters in March.

Coronavirus banner