The Japan Times published an editorial on August 14, 2017 calling for a phasing out of nuclear energy in Japan (see below). However, JER believes the position of the Japan Times on nuclear power is unrealistic and ignores a number of important considerations, as we outline below.
The article states that nuclear power is “falling out of favor with the times both in Japan and abroad”. It also states that “the public has grown more skeptical about the use of nuclear power”.
The first statement is questionable. In fact, the global nuclear power industry might be on the verge of a resurgence thanks to a series of technological breakthroughs such as molten salt and sodium reactors that may dramatically reduce both the cost and the potential risk of nuclear power (see this post and this one). Even countries such as Canada where 65% of electricity generation is emissions-free is planning to build and operate new nuclear power reactors using these latest technologies. Secondly, meeting international GHG emissions targets will be virtually impossible to achieve without the use of nuclear power in many countries, including Japan. Nuclear power is virtually carbon emissions-free and is therefore important in climate change mitigation strategies and as part of a diversified energy mix for Japan. Thirdly, nuclear power provides a large measure of energy security because reactors use uranium which can be easily stockpiled, providing a long-term source of “domestic” power that is not subject to shipping interruptions, wars or embargoes.
The second point is partly true. Support for nuclear power has waxed and waned over the years in Japan, but after the Fukushima disaster a majority of the Japanese public lost faith in nuclear power. A poll by Asahi Shimbun in 2016 reported that 57% opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power.
The article calls for Japan not to “turn its back” on international trends and de-nuclearize. But “international trends” must be balanced by the fact that Japan is 94% dependent on imports of energy to fuel its economy. Japan also faces a range of threats to its energy security from increased tension in the South China Sea, continued instability in the Middle East (from where Japan sources most of its fossil fuel imports), and the possibility of future increases in the price of energy commodities.
Clearly, the Japanese government hopes to keep a portion of its huge investment in its nuclear fleet operating for at least another 20-30 years. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) continues to undertake strict safety reviews of nuclear power plants and has imposed some of the strictest regulations in the world. If nuclear power was to be taken out of the energy mix for Japan, the gap between electricity supply and demand would have to be made up somehow. Currently it is being filled largely by natural gas turbines, coal and energy efficiency measures but increased use of fossil fuels has spiked Japan’s GHG emissions while also significantly reducing energy security. Japan is already the most energy-efficient country in the world so additional improvements would be very challenging and could actually harm the economy. Renewables are on a strong upsurge however the grid is limited in how much renewable generation it can absorb given the intermittency of renewables, the lack of cost-effective mass storage capability and the cost of feed-in tariff programs and other subsidies.
Understandably, there is significant ambivalence toward nuclear power in Japan given the tragedy of Fukushima. Japanese public opinion supports a phase-out, not an immediate stop to nuclear power. Japan is therefore likely to be stuck with nuclear power as a transition source for at least another 20 years until it can be phased out, or until new and safer nuclear technologies can be developed and employed. The October 2017 parliamentary elections resulted in a landslide victory for the LDP so overall support for the policies of the Abe government have strengthened, making it likely that it will continue on course with its Strategic Energy Plan. Notwithstanding these developments, the government needs to continue do all it can to continue to improve nuclear safety, restart plants that have passed safety reviews and continue to diversify the energy mix , especially for other low-carbon sources of power.
Phasing out nuclear power a must for Japan’s new energy plan- the Japan Times
The industry ministry has opened discussions for reviewing Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan, which defines a grand framework for how the country will consume, and cover the demand for, electric power, heat and other forms of energy.Industry minister Hiroshige Seko has said the core part of the plan will remain basically unchanged. Minor adjustments alone, however, would simply not suffice under current circumstances.The ongoing edition of the plan is questionable in many respects, including in the way it defines nuclear energy as a mainstay power source despite broad public opposition to restarts of nuclear reactors. A big wave of change is occurring on a global scale. For example, there are moves, mostly in advanced industrialized nations, for pulling the plug on nuclear power. There is also a trend for moving from coal-fired thermal power generation, given that the Paris Agreement has now taken effect for fighting global warming. Renewable energy options, such as wind and solar power, are spreading rapidly.Japan should also redraw the image of its future self. First and foremost, a phase-out of nuclear power should define the foundation of the country’s new future perspective.While combining a nuclear phase-out with a fight against global warming won’t be an easy task, advances in energy-saving technologies and in renewable energy options have lowered the hurdles for pursuing both. There is a need to seek pathways for doing so, with due consideration given to cost performance and the stability of the energy supply.