The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has begun a review of the government’s Basic Energy Plan — three years after its last update in 2014 by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The current plan, the first adopted in the wake of the March 2011 catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, lacks clear direction and features apparent inconsistencies, such as its call for reducing “as much as possible” the nation’s dependence on nuclear power as a source of electricity while at the same time characterizing nuclear energy as an “important baseload power source” that contributes to a stable energy supply. Under this policy, the Abe administration and the power companies have pushed for restarting nuclear reactors taken offline after the 2011 crisis once they have cleared screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).
In the review to be completed by the end of the current fiscal year, METI reportedly intends to keep the basic outline of the current plan intact — because of the political sensitivities surrounding nuclear power six years after the 2011 disaster. However, the government should overhaul the plan with a more pragmatic assessment of the prospect of nuclear power in this country, which could also affect Japan’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and a greater emphasis on renewable energy.
Based on the 2014 plan, the government envisages an energy mix in 2030 where nuclear power will account for 20 to 22 percent of the nation’s electricity output — compared with nearly 29 percent in 2010, the last year before the Fukushima crisis. Since power companies have decommissioned several aging reactors under the tightened safety regulations, that target would likely not be achieved unless almost all of the remaining reactors — including the four at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 2 plant — are restarted and the operations of many of them are extended beyond the 40-year rule to the maximum 60 years allowed as “exceptions.
That hardly sounds like shedding the reliance on nuclear power. But the feasibility of that target is another question. Restarting the idled reactors has so far not progressed as much as hoped by the power industry, which faces a heavy financial burden from having to import fuel to run thermal power plants instead. Of the 26 reactors whose restart have been sought by 11 power firms, only five have been brought back online after clearing the NRA’s screening under the post-Fukushima disaster safety regulations and getting the nod of host local governments. In fiscal 2016, the share of nuclear power in the electricity supply stood at a mere 2 percent.
Popular concern over the safety of nuclear power remains strong. as shown in media surveys that point to steep opposition to restarting of the idled reactors. Lawsuits have been filed to prevent power companies from reactivating their reactors — with some court orders issued, though later reversed, to halt their operations. Behind METI’s intention to avoid a major overhaul of the Basic Energy Plan, including discussion on the question over construction of new reactors, is said to be the political sensitivities to the public opinion still wary of nuclear power, particularly as popular approval ratings of the Abe administration have come down sharply in recent months.
A recent estimate by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a private research institute, forecast that nuclear power will account for about 10 percent of Japan’s electricity output in 2030 — less than half the government’s energy mix target — and that power companies will instead turn more to coal-fired thermal power plants, pushing up the share of coal to as much as 38 percent of the total supply in 2030, far above the government’s target of 26 percent and even higher than the 30 percent last year.
The government has long relied on nuclear energy as a key pillar of the nation’s measures against climate change, given that nuclear reactors do not generate carbon dioxide in power generation. However, the cloudy prospects of nuclear power cast doubt on reaching the government’s targets for reducing the nation’s emissions of global warming gases, including the goal of cutting emissions in 2030 by 26 percent from 2013 levels. Furthermore, Japan’s continued emphasis on coal-fired plants — which are popular in the power industry because of their low fuel cost but which emit far more carbon dioxide than other forms of power generation — goes against the global trend of other countries shedding coal to combat climate change. Power companies in Japan have plans to build roughly 40 new coal-fired thermal power plants.
As it is, the Basic Energy Plan does not appear to reflect the broad changes that have taken place in the energy landscape both in Japan and overseas. The once-touted cost advantages of nuclear power now appears to be in doubt with the added safety requirements following the 2011 disaster, with a number of counties rethinking their nuclear power plans. Introduction of renewable energy such as solar and wind power had expanded in recent years, significantly pushing down their costs. While the plan calls for expanding “as much as possible” the share of renewable energy in Japan, their target in the 2030 energy mix is set at a modest 22 to 24 percent — just slightly above the target for nuclear power, and even lower than the one for coal-fired plants. The plan merits a major review in view of these developments.