Author: Parul Bakshi, JNU
The urgent global need to meet climate ambitions, growing uncertainty over securing vital energy resources due to the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the inability of renewable resources to meet exponentially increasing energy demand reignite the debate on nuclear energy.
Some argue that a carbon-free future will remain an unattainable dream unless nuclear energy is used to combat the adverse effects of global warming. While this claim continues to be debated, a recent report from the International Energy Agency suggests that nuclear power is set to make a comeback and experience a doubling in capacity between 2020 and 2050.
The situation is particularly serious for Japan. With a relatively small share of domestic energy resources, it has relied on imports of coal, oil, and natural gas to meet its energy needs. It is therefore not surprising that Japan was one of the first countries to expand its fleet of nuclear power plants to ensure its energy self-sufficiency. Japan’s 2010 Strategic Energy Plan aimed to increase the share of nuclear power – otherwise known as “dream energy” – to meet half of its electricity demand by 2030.
But the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 led to the dramatic reversal of those plans as a complete nuclear phase-out was considered. While the vision of phasing out was set aside when the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power, Japan’s nuclear energy policy lacked clarity to achieve its stated goals.
A 20-22% share of nuclear energy is envisioned in the latest draft Strategic Energy Plan in 2022. Although this goal has remained the same since the 2014 Strategic Energy Plan, the process to achieve it is not still unclear. As of June 2022, only ten of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors had been given the green light to restart, while only four were currently in operation and 21 had been decommissioned.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeatedly reiterated the need for more power plants to restart and the crucial role nuclear power plays in Japan’s security and stability, announcing that up to nine reactors will be in operation by now. the end of 2022. With liquefied natural gas prices in Japan reaching historic highs and Japan’s continued determination to include nuclear energy, it is time to examine the possibility of establishing a substantial Japanese policy in terms of of nuclear energy.
It remains to be seen whether Japan will make a full-fledged return to the league of major nuclear-powered nations, but it seems unlikely. To continue to rely on nuclear power, Japan will have to not only extend the life of the reactor beyond the stipulated 60 years – a move that could reignite public fears and opposition – but also build new plants. , which could take a decade. This will be ineffective in meeting the short-term energy needs the country is grappling with, while leaving Japan behind in the global green race with implications for its net zero climate vision of 2050.
Other obstacles to expanding nuclear power include overcoming local opposition, lawsuits against restarts, delayed assessments and excessive safety targets stipulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority. Nuclear project cost overruns, nuclear waste management, and the political and societal implications of nuclear disasters also pose challenges.
Yet Hiroshi Kajiyama, Japan’s former minister of economy, trade and industry, called nuclear power “indispensable” for Japan. Kishida’s new capitalism – which emphasizes inclusiveness, sustainability and touts green innovation as an area that would benefit from increased investment in government research and development – could encourage the development of related nuclear technologies such as Finland’s Onkalo nuclear spent fuel repository technology and small modular reactors.
In the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a transparent account of government nuclear policy could help both the nuclear industry and the public. But Japan needs to have a clear idea of how to manage its existing nuclear capability given the precarious geopolitical energy climate. With rising fuel prices and a weak yen, Japan is in the midst of the most severe energy crisis the country has ever faced.
The ambiguity surrounding the future of nuclear energy serves no purpose in Japan, both domestically and internationally. A clear political vision articulating how existing barriers will be overcome is essential for continued investment to ensure stable electricity supply and to insulate the sector from any unforeseen political instability at the leadership level.
Nuclear energy is not the only solution that Japan hopes for. Tokyo will need to make continued progress in renewable energy and other technologies such as hydrogen, carbon capture, energy utilization and storage (CCUS). But with the government systematically including nuclear power in its strategic energy plan, it would be prudent to outline how the desired goals are to be achieved by 2030.
A clear vision for nuclear energy will help energy industry stakeholders better understand the direction of Japan’s nuclear industry, so they can prepare for the resulting implications rather than guessing whether the government will be able to take action.
Parul Bakshi is a PhD candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India and previously Special Research Student and Japan Foundation Scholar at the University of Tokyo, Japan. She is co-editor of Indo-Japanese relations at 70: building beyond the bilateral (2022).