With Fresh Election, Japan Veers Away from Nuclear Phase-Out

A landslide victory handed by Japanese voters to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in mid-December saw power in the country’s Lower House shift back to the nationalist-conservative party that had governed Japan almost continuously since 1955. The LDP had been ousted in a historic defeat only three years earlier. In his first televised interview since taking office, newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (who previously served as prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007) called for review of plans to phase out nuclear power in Japan by 2030, endorsing instead the construction of new, safer nuclear power plants.

The announcement comes just months after an advisory panel set up by the previous administration led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the Democratic Party of Japan made the controversial recommendation that Japan should seek to close all 50 of its viable nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase its reliance on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and fossil fuels. The recommendation contained in a document titled “Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy,” and released by then-Minister of State for National Policy Motohisa Furukawa, calls for a ban on new reactors, though it left open the possibility that seven reactors at varying stages of construction in Japan could be completed. The former government also urged that exemptions be granted to its policy so that reactors could be shuttered after their 40-year lifespans, suggesting the deadline to phase out nuclear power was flexible.

Japan’s Cabinet had then refrained from outright endorsing the recommendation that had been crafted after nearly a year of public hearings and deliberation by representatives from the country’s sizeable power sector on what Japan’s energy future should look like. But last December, newly installed Prime Minister Abe (Figure 3) said one of his administration’s first acts would be to revise the phase-out plan, and he wasted little time in flanking himself with pro-nuclear ministry officials. LDP officials, meanwhile, said their election victory showed a change in public opinion. “Rather than a nuclear-free nation, what was supported was a move to decide on the future of nuclear energy after discussing the issue for periods of between three to 10 years,” Shigeru Ishiba, LDP secretary-general, was quoted as saying by the Asahi Shimbun. Meanwhile, newly installed Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said at his first news conference that future political decisions would be made about whether to allow construction to start on nine planned reactors.

3. A return to nuclear. Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his first televised interview that he would review the previous administration’s plans to phase out nuclear power by 2030. In this photo, Abe (in blue) speaks to workers at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was devastated after an earthquake in March 2011. The plant is now stable, but removing all radiation could take decades. Courtesy: TEPCO

Before the 9.0-magnitude temblor and ensuing tsunami destroyed Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011, Japan procured about 26% of its power supply from nuclear generation. About 9% came from hydropower, 1% from renewables, and 61% from coal, oil, and liquefied natural gas. The country, which imports 95% of its energy needs, went nuclear-free for a brief period between May, when all reactors were shut down for inspection, and July last year, after restart of Ohi Units 3 and 4, but it has struggled to meet normal year demand peaks. At times, the government has been compelled to force power savings by invoking the Electricity Business Act.

Only the two Ohi reactors are operational to date; the remaining 48 remain shut down as antinuclear protests periodically take place across the country. The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC) and other industry stakeholders foresee economic calamities if nuclear power should be phased out, spurred by an unpredictable electricity supply/demand balance, an outflow of national wealth, rising electricity costs, and increasing carbon emissions. Japan is already at the brink of another recession, many point out, calling attention to the country’s ballooning national debt, falling exports, and unemployment that is so severe that a third of working-age Japanese reportedly are unable to find jobs.

The phase-out strategy “involves too many problems” said the FEPC in a statement in December. “We believe it should be reviewed under the new administration and modified to support a more realistic energy policy.”

Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.