What to do about the future of Japan’s energy supply, especially when it comes to nuclear power and renewables, has sparked an intense debate between the four candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency, with each laying out their energy strategies for a green society.
Among them, Sanae Takaichi is the most pro-nuclear energy candidate, while the other three — Fumio Kishida, Taro Kono and Seiko Noda — say that it’s more or less inevitable that Japan will have to rely on nuclear power for the time being.
Last October, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga committed Japan to becoming a carbon neutral society by 2050. To achieve this goal, the government announced in April that it is targeting a 46% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, based on 2013 levels.
In addition, Japan is now preparing its next long-term energy strategy for 2030. Under a draft plan, the share of renewable energy, which accounted for 18% of the electricity supply in fiscal 2019, is to be increased to between 36% and 38% by 2030, while nuclear’s share, just 6% in 2019, is supposed to be raised to between 20% and 22%.
To meet the nuclear power goal, Japan needs about 30 operating reactors in 2030. As of July, there were 36 reactors listed as available for use, including three under construction. But only 10 were officially in operation, while six had received restart approval, another 11 had applied for permission to restart and nine other reactors had not applied to be restarted. In addition to those reactors, another 24 have been shut down and will be decommissioned due to the triple meltdown caused by the March 2011 earthquake.
There are other nuclear-related issues. Japan plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel generated by the reactors at a facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, but candidates are divided on the topic. A facility to manufacture mixed uranium and plutonium (MOX) fuel from spent conventional reactor fuel is scheduled to open in 2022.
Here is a look at where the candidates stand on the topic of energy policy:
Kishida has said that restarting nuclear power is necessary in order to keep energy costs affordable and to maintain current lifestyles and industrial activity.
“For the time being, nuclear energy is required. With Japan’s 2050 policy of becoming carbon neutral, we must prepare to use more clean energy. Relying on renewable energy alone is not enough, due to issues involving the cost of energy sources and their stable supply,” Kishida told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in mid-September. “We need more options, including nuclear power.”
Kishida is opposed to stopping Japan’s spent fuel recycling program, saying that stopping the recycling of spent conventional fuel, which contains small percentages of plutonium, while restarting nuclear reactors would lead to Japan holding increased plutonium stocks.
As of the end of last year, Japan had 46.1 tons of separated plutonium, including 8.9 held domestically and 37.2 tons in the U.K. and France, where spent fuel from Japanese nuclear plants has been reprocessed and is being stored until it can be returned to Japan after the Rokkasho MOX plant comes online.
“Stopping plans for the MOX fuel cycle will lead to increased stockpiles of plutonium, and that could create diplomatic problems,” Kishida said.
Kono has long been known as a maverick within the LDP, opposing increased use of nuclear power and calling for a quick shift to renewable energy. However, he has recently said that, for the moment, nuclear power plants will have to be restarted.
“Right now, the life cycle of a nuclear power plant is 40 years in principle, and it can be extended to 60 years. So, plants approaching the end of their life cycle will gradually face decommissioning. When they are scrapped, our reliance on nuclear energy will slowly decrease,” Kono said during the Sept. 18 debate at the Japan National Press Club. “To combat climate change and realize a carbon-neutral society, we need to shut coal and oil-fired plants as quickly as possible. We’re also going to have to continue to rely on natural gas.”
Kono wants to halt plans for the MOX reprocessing plant, and he notes that, regardless of whether spent fuel is recycled or currently idled nuclear power plants are restarted, Japan already has a lot of nuclear waste in storage at nuclear power plants around the country.
The government wants to build an underground repository for storing high-level radioactive waste, where it would remain until safe to remove 100,000 years later. But it has not found a location yet.
“How to dispose of the waste we already have is going to be a problem no matter who is in charge of the government. We have to find a site for final disposal,” he said. “Technical advancements mean the storage time for the waste, which right now is 100,000 years, could be shortened.
“But such technology is not yet available. So do we leave the problem as is, or deal with the problem and find a site for final disposal?”
Of the four candidates, Takaichi, backed by the pro-nuclear former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been the strongest advocate of increased nuclear power, especially two types of nuclear power still years away from commercial realization — small modular reactors and nuclear fusion.
“When talking about the need for stable energy, Japanese firms could work with U.S. firms in the development of small modular reactors, which are safe and secure. Building them underground in order to protect them from potential missiles could also be done,” Takaichi said at the Sept. 18 debate. “I think it’s necessary to allocate funds for their research.”
Small modular reactors generate about a quarter of the electricity produced by conventional large-scale reactors. They are currently under research and development in the U.S., and are being promoted as a cheaper and safer alternative to conventional nuclear power. Although touted as a green solution that will help prevent the worst aspects of climate change, they are unlikely to be ready for deployment until the latter half of this decade.
Takaichi has pledged to create a new environmental energy agency that would take charge of renewable energy and nuclear power, areas currently under the trade ministry. She also favors replacing current aging reactors with new ones.
Finally, she has said she would approve funding for nuclear fusion, which would produce far less radioactive waste than conventional reactors. But the technology is difficult and expensive, raising questions about its cost efficiency.
As head of the LDP’s policy panel on carbon neutrality, Noda, like Kishida and Takaichi, views nuclear power and other currently available energy sources as essential to ensuring a stable supply of electricity.
“Stability of supply is paramount. You have to be able to guarantee that as well as make use of what energy sources are available at the time,” she said during the Sept. 18 news conference.
Noda agrees with Kono on the feasibility of increased renewable energy sources, including offshore wind power as well as the increased use of hydrogen power. But she has also long advocated for increased use of one renewable energy source in particular: geothermal.
“I’ve made the promotion of geothermal power plants my life’s work. Finally now, perhaps thanks to Kono’s efforts, we’re seeing more positive efforts from the trade and economy ministry to promote it,” she said.
“Japan is third in the world in terms of geothermal energy potential, but people have used excuses about cost and such to prevent its further expansion,” she added, vowing to make geothermal an important priority along with solar, wind and offshore wind power.
While renewable energy accounted for 18% of Japan’s electricity supply in fiscal 2019, geothermal energy was responsible for only 0.3% of that. Currently, the ministry has called for geothermal’s share to be raised to 1.1% by 2030.
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