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API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change

In June, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi held a videoconference with the Japan Climate Initiative, a network of companies, local governments, research institutions and NGOs, to share views on how to achieve a post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

They agreed on one approach: green recovery.

Green recovery, which focuses on climate change countermeasures to revitalize economies hit by the novel coronavirus, is becoming the mainstream of global economies, especially in Europe.

On July 21, European Union leaders reached a deal to raise €750 billion (about ¥92 trillion) aside from the EU budget to launch an extraordinary aid fund known as Next Generation EU.

Roughly one-third of the aid fund will be allocated for measures to tackle climate change, which means a record-high scale of green investment will be made to stimulate the economy in the EU along with its next seven-year budget.

The EU has put forth a growth strategy of boosting its economy and creating jobs while progressing toward the goal of transitioning to a carbon neutral economy — an economy with net-zero greenhouse emissions — by 2050, with green investments becoming the pillar to maintaining and accelerating recovery efforts.

Europe is not the only place coming up with an economic recovery plan that emphasizes climate-friendly choices, though.

Canada created a fund to provide loans to the oil and gas sector to support their investments to reduce emissions of methane — a greenhouse gas — while retaining jobs. China, meanwhile, extended its subsidies for purchases of new electric cars to the end of 2022.

So far, the United States does not offer such measures specifically with the aim of recovering the economy, but the Democratic Party is pushing in its presidential campaign platform to create a large number of jobs in the field of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, Japan has not come up with clear measures for green recovery in its emergency response packages announced so far.

Japan has often been criticized by the international community for failing to show its commitment to fighting climate change and putting together a long-term strategy. On Monday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made an ambitious pledge to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050, yet few concrete details were given.

So how can Japan achieve green recovery from here on? Initiatives for climate change are intertwined with Japan’s energy policy.

Japan’s total greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2013 were roughly 1.4 billion tons, with energy-induced carbon dioxide emissions making up 88% of that.

In countries like Japan, whose energy self-sufficiency ratio is extremely low, how to ensure energy security is a structural and realistic challenge along with climate change countermeasures.

In the June video conference, the Environment Ministry declared that it will be deeply committed to facilitating use of renewable energy aimed at decarbonization.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, in charge of energy policy, has said that strengthening efforts to be more “green,” in addition to being more digital and focusing on medical and health issues, is essential for the post-coronavirus economy and society.

The ministry strongly advocates the significance of zero-emission power generation using renewable energy free of carbon dioxide and nuclear energy. It is in line with the nation’s “3E+S” policy which sets out to strengthen energy security, economic efficiency and environmental adaptation simultaneously without compromising major premises of safety and the government’s goal of achieving by 2030 an energy mix of generating 22-24% of energy needs from renewable sources, 20-22% from nuclear energy and 56% from fossil fuels.

Challenges facing nuclear power

In pushing ahead with these policies, however, the government has one big hurdle to clear — the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

As of 2020, only nine nuclear reactors are in operation with nuclear power comprising only 3% of the nation’s electricity generated, well below the target of 20-22%.

Nuclear power, which does not produce carbon dioxide when generating electricity, has very important implications for Japan’s efforts to decarbonize.

Since fuel for nuclear power generation can be stockpiled and nuclear power’s output per amount of fuel used is overwhelmingly large, it is a valuable power source that can contribute to improving the energy self-sufficiency of Japan, a country that lacks significant domestic reserves of fossil fuels.

Even so, the Japanese public’s trust toward nuclear power has been low since the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster, and use of nuclear power plants has plummeted. As a result, the nation’s energy self-sufficiency rate, which stood at 20% before the disaster, has dropped to below 10%.

While Japan's position on nuclear power has remained unclear following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, construction of a new nuclear plant in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, has progressed. | KYODO
While Japan’s position on nuclear power has remained unclear following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, construction of a new nuclear plant in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, has progressed. | KYODO

While many called for the need to hold a broad public debate on Japan’s energy policy in the following years, no consensus has yet been made on the future of nuclear power plants nearly a decade later.

When Koizumi was made environment minister in September 2019, he had an anti-nuclear stance at his first news conference, saying, “I would like to study how we will scrap (nuclear reactors), not how to retain them.” But he has recently been avoiding commenting on the issue.

The reason behind the government’s reluctance to set a clear direction regarding nuclear power plants is the fact that while nuclear power is a CO2-free energy source that can contribute to raising energy self-sufficiency, it can cause great damage to people, society and the economy in the event that an accident occurs.

The Fukushima disaster resulted in huge compensation and decommissioning costs for the plant’s operator, the loss of hometowns and divided communities for people who lived near the plant, human resources flowing out of the region and continuing harmful rumors.

Numerous issues that surfaced following the accident remain unsolved. The operator’s corporate culture has not improved drastically and the question of how to dispose of contaminated water containing tritium from the plant is still unresolved.

Regarding the issue of the evacuation of nearby residents in the case of an accident, although some improvements were made after many people died in relation to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it cannot be said that enough discussion has been held.

It takes an extremely long time to cope with back end issues, including the recycling of spent nuclear fuel and the final disposal of radioactive waste, and there can be no denying that various uncertainties might come up in the future.

Considering such factors, we have to say there are high barriers to restarting nuclear reactors.

Future visions

Should Japan continue relying on nuclear power even with so many risk factors? The question is hard to answer.

Currently there is no other way than nuclear power developed to supply a large amount of carbon-free and stable energy. Thermal power generation is carbon intensive and renewable energy power generation has to date often required large plots of land and huge costs.

A realistic choice would be to work on reducing dependency on nuclear power in the long term, but to aim for the restart of nuclear reactors to some extent in the short term at least.

In order to restart nuclear reactors, it is necessary to seek the public’s understanding on the premise of securing safety. The Fukushima disaster had a grave impact on the Japanese society as a whole and led to increased public distrust toward nuclear power plants.

According to a poll conducted by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, respondents who said they don’t trust nuclear power rose by nearly 20 percentage points from 10.2% in 2010 to 30% in 2015. The figure stood at 24.4% in 2019.

Those who responded that nuclear power is necessary declined by more than 20 percentage points at most from 35.4% in 2010 to 14.8% in 2013. The rate was 24.3% in 2019.

Media polls also show that respondents who are against the restart of nuclear reactors outnumber those who back it, indicating the continued weak public support for nuclear power plants.

A decade later

Following the Fukushima disaster, different investigation commissions in the private sector, the Diet, the government and the academic field worked to identify the factors that caused the incident and came up with proposals.

As the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches, it is necessary to assess how much of those proposals has actually been reflected in the policies of nuclear plant operators, the government and regulation authorities, then present that to the people and make efforts to win public support.

In addition, it is worth considering introducing a system to strengthen the price competitiveness of nuclear power by giving nuclear power plant operators credit for producing low-carbon energy.

While such a system is little discussed in Japan, in the United States, for example, New York and Illinois enacted a zero emission credit program in 2016 to support nuclear plant operators allowing continued operation.

Under the program, nuclear plant operators are compensated for the carbon-free electricity they produce. They could continue operating the plants as authorities adopted a policy to economically assess the value of low-carbon energy sources and introduced a system that helped increase the price competitiveness of nuclear power.

The issue of climate change is something that should be dealt with immediately, and it should be tackled along with efforts to recover the economy hit by COVID-19.

Now is the time to place significance on the value of nuclear power to avoid carbon emissions. Japan can envision a long-term strategy for green recovery only after clarifying its position on nuclear power.

Narumi Shibata is a program officer at API.

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