Japan is going back to nuclear power
From the on the grounds of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, a plant in northern Japan, waves can be heard lapping at the nearby shore. They are a reminder of the tragedy that happened on March 11, 2011, when a massive earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that flooded the east coast of Japan. While the Onagawa reactors managed to shut down safely, the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 180km down the coast, suffered a meltdown. After the disaster Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors. Since then only a handful have been reversed. Onagawa is among the nuclear plants still idle.
This will change soon. Onagawa recently received a safety sign-off from the new independent regulator established in the wake of the disaster, in part thanks to the facility’s new 29-meter-high seawall. In 2020 local officials also gave permission to restart. Tohoku Electric, the operator of the plant, could start generating power again early next year (after some repairs are completed). “Recently, the electricity crisis and rising resource costs have made people across Japan think,” said Suda Yoshiaki, the mayor of Onagawa. “Is there any other way to provide a lot of energy in a sustainable way? There is no alternative… In terms of the big picture, nuclear power is necessary.”
Restarting reactors like those at Onagawa is the first step in another major shift in the energy policy of the world’s third-largest economy and fifth-largest carbon emitter. In December Kishida Fumio, Japan’s prime minister, announced a new ten-year road map for Japan “gx”, or “Green Transformation”, which includes steps to revive the nuclear industry, strengthen the country’s grid and start introducing carbon prices. Terazawa Tatsuya, chairman of the Japan Institute of Energy Economics, a think tank in Tokyo, argues that Japan is finally “putting flesh on the bones” of a promise made by Mr Kishida’s predecessor Suga Yoshihide to decarbonize the country. neutral by 2050. It is a delicate task, which requires finding a good balance between safety, energy security and environmental concerns.
As an island nation with few natural resources, Japan has long been in a precarious position when it comes to energy. Heavy dependence on oil in the Middle East fueled Japan’s rapid economic growth after World War II, only to reverse during the oil crisis of 1973-74. That led Japan to expand its nuclear fleet, develop liquefied natural gas (lng) and research renewable technologies under the banner of “Project Sunshine”. By 2010 nuclear had emerged as the heart of Japanese energy policy, with 54 reactors providing about 25% of electricity production; the government aimed to expand the share of nuclear and hydropower to 70% by 2030. The Fukushima crisis derailed these plans. Instead new laws were passed to promote solar power. The share of renewables in electricity generation doubled from 10% in 2010 to over 20% last year. But Japan has mostly filled the gap by turning to lng and coal (see chart).
The war in Ukraine has brought back memories of the first oil crisis, with Japan again relying heavily on imported fuel in an unstable world. The only country that is less self-sufficient in energy is Japan among the 36 members of the oecd, a rich country club, Luxembourg is small, with land. Mr. Kishida’s administration has used this latest shock primarily to justify the revival of nuclear power. His new energy policy roadmap calls for “optimizing energy sources that contribute to Japan’s security and significantly decarbonize”, including both nuclear and renewables. innovative Nuclear accounted for about 8% of electricity supply last year; the latest government targets see the proportion bouncing back to 22-24% by 2030. The government has also announced plans to extend the operational life of the reactors from 40 to 60 years and to replace to raise Together, the changes amount to a “U-turn” back to nuclear power, says Tom O’Sullivan of Mathyos, an energy consultancy based in Tokyo.
Switching to well-regulated nuclear plants to phase out coal is good policy. But there is a risk that the shift will slow or reverse the recent momentum behind the expansion of renewable energy. “The real question is how to install more solar and wind strongly and quickly,” said Iida Tetsunari of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a think tank in Tokyo. “Japan is falling behind the global curve. ” Japan generates about half as much electricity from renewable sources as its European counterparts. Experts who try to explain this are divided into two camps. One focuses on geographic limitations: the lack of flat land for solar panels and deep ocean shelves that make it relatively difficult to install offshore wind turbines. The other believes that the obstacles are largely political: heavy regulation, vested interests and a system of regional power monopolies that do not distribute power effectively across the country. Under Mr. Suga, reformist ministers sympathetic to the latter camp hailed recent progress on renewable energy; under Mr. Kishida, voices from the old camp have once again come to dominate the policy debate.
So the latest plans for renewable expansion are far more ambitious than many want. The government expects the share of renewable energy in electricity to grow to 36-38% by 2030, just over half the level them deciding Mr Kishida’s strategy also earmarks money for major upgrades to transmission lines, including between the windy but sparsely populated northern island of Hokkaido and population centers around Tokyo. But efforts to make the grid work more flexibly and quickly have stopped, Mr. Iida laments. Plans to implement carbon pricing, while a welcome step, may be too little too late: Japan’s carbon tax will only come into effect in 2028, and at levels that may be too low for make a big impact.
Mr. Kishida’s proposed nuclear revival is not a sure bet. Restarting centers is subject to regulatory and local approval processes that cannot be short-circuited by the central government. Public opinion has begun to shift in her favor. According to polls by Nikkei, a business newspaper, 53% of Japanese support restarting reactors as long as safety can be ensured, the first time a majority has been in favor of this in more than a decade. Some who live near the reactors would like to keep them and the subsidies they bring. But distrust is widespread; many others will fight the reopening. In Onagawa, residents have sued to block the restart, claiming the government’s disaster evacuation plan is deeply flawed. Of Japan’s 33 remaining reactors, only ten have been restarted. Mr Kishida wants seven more to come online this year; to reach the 2030 target, it would need another ten or so beyond that. Many energy gurus are skeptical that this will be impossible.■
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