An agreeable energy mix

The government has begun discussions on Japan’s long-term energy mix, with the likely focus on how much nuclear power should account for the nation’s electricity supply — a question that has been politically skirted since the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But the government’s scenario reported by the media even before discussions at a panel of experts at the trade and industry ministry began last week raises doubts over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated pledge that his administration would seek to reduce Japan’s dependency on nuclear power as much as possible.

At issue will be the nation’s energy mix by 2030. The panel at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, led by former Komatsu Ltd. Chairman Masahiro Sakane, reportedly plans to reach a conclusion by summer. By setting the future shape of the energy supply components, the government hopes to set a target for reducing Japan’s emissions of global warming gases in time for the international talks on long-term cuts to emissions with a view to reaching an agreement by yearend.

Just before the 2011 Fukushima disaster, nuclear power accounted for 28.6 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, while thermal power plants supplied 61.7 percent of the total, hydro power 8.5 percent and other renewable sources a mere 1.1 percent.

As power companies shut down most of their nuclear reactors in the wake of the Tepco plant meltdowns, the share of nuclear power plunged to 1 percent and that of thermal power shot up to 88.3 percent in fiscal 2013. Currently, none of the nation’s 48 nuclear power reactors are in operation.

The Abe administration has already reversed the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government’s policy of seeking to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, and is ready to reactivate nuclear reactors that have been idled in the wake of the 2011 disaster once they have cleared the safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

The government’s updated Basic Energy Plan — the first since the Fukushima disaster — calls nuclear power plants an “important baseload source” of electricity supply. At the same time, Abe has repeatedly said the government would seek to lower Japan’s energy dependency on nuclear power as much as possible through introduction of more renewable energy and energy-saving efforts. The discussions for setting the future energy mix may give a clue as to whether such words by the prime minister have merely been intended to placate public concern over the safety of nuclear power.

The trade and industry ministry is reportedly seeking a 15 to 20 percent share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply in 2030. Just as when the Basic Energy Plan was adopted last year, the Abe administration appears to be reverting to the old ways of setting the policy direction through closed-door discussions by members of the panel appointed by the bureaucracy on the basis of a script prepared by bureaucrats.

It is not clear whether the reported 15 to 20 percent share sought for nuclear power was the product of serious discussions on ways to maximize energy-saving steps and use of renewable energy or just an attempt to secure a significant share for nuclear power.

The government has already overhauled the feed-in-tariff system, introduced by the previous administration to accelerate introduction of renewable energy, after the power companies temporarily halted their purchase of electricity from solar power firms on the grounds that they cannot cope with the rapid surge in power supply from such sources.

The government will reportedly reassess the electricity generation cost in each source of power supply such as nuclear, thermal power and renewables.

Before the 2011 disaster, the government explained that nuclear power is a cheaper source of energy than either thermal power or solar power. Whether and how the new calculation would accurately reflect the cost of coping with possible severe accidents at nuclear power plants, including the cleanup efforts, decommissioning the crippled reactors, permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste and other risks associated with the safety of nuclear power, remains to be seen.

While the government maintains that nuclear power still has cost advantages over other sources and keeping the idled reactors shut down hurts Japan’s economy, it is considering steps to allow power companies to add the overall cost of running nuclear power plants, including their future decommissioning, to electricity charges even after the power retail is liberalized and subjected to greater competition through deregulation in coming years.

The government has said it is unable to work out long-term goals for cuts to Japan’s emissions of greenhouse gases as long as it lacks the prospect of nuclear power — which does not emit carbon dioxide in power generation. Japan’s emissions in fact rose 1.6 percent in fiscal 2013 to the highest levels since 1990 as power companies operated more thermal power plants. That also illustrates how Japan is falling short on other efforts to fight global warming.

Electricity accounts for less than half of the nation’s total energy consumption. Instead of only focusing on the share of nuclear power on the assumption that electricity demand will continue to increase, the talks on the energy mix should build on serious discussions for energy-saving measures, as well as maximum efforts to introduce more renewable energy sources, which should contribute both to combating global warming and to minimizing dependency on nuclear power.