Japan drafts a return to nuclear

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes his strongest move yet to switch reactors back on as he shapes a role for nuclear in 20-year energy policy.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Shinzo Abe India Press Information Bureau Wiki.jpg
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center) on a January visit to India, a country with ambitious nuclear power plans. He's flanked by India's President Pranab Mukherjee in front of the chair on his left, and by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his far right.
Japan's Prime Minster Shinzo Abe this week made his strongest move yet in his attempt to restart nuclear power, drafting an energy policy that would rely on nuclear.

"Japan will continue to rely on nuclear power as a central part of its energy policy under a draft government plan, effectively overturning a pledge by a previous administration to phase out all nuclear plants."
None of the country's 50-some reactors are currently operating, and most of them have been out of action for nearly three years, a safety response to the tragic earthquake and tsunami that caused preventable meltdowns at the poorly managed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station in March, 2011.

Nuclear had provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity. To fill the void, Japan has imported fossil fuels, a move that has cost it economically and environmentally. Its CO2 emissions have soared, it has backed way off climate goals, and it has wracked up record trade deficits.

As energy official Toshikazu Okuya says in the story, the nuclear cut "has increased our dependence on fossil fuels," and "money has flowed out of the country and electricity prices have risen."

Prime Minister Abe has been pushing for a return to nuclear since he took office in December, 2012. His government's new draft energy policy makes clear his intentions. As the WSJ reports:

It says that "nuclear power is an important baseload electricity source," meaning that nuclear plants would remain at the core of power production along with coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants.
The plan puts forth an energy strategy for the next 20 years, the story notes. Nuclear's contribution would not necessarily return to 30 percent. 

The country's nuclear regulator has imposed stricter rules, and is reviewing 17 reactors for a possible restart.

Japanese citizens are divided on the subject. In a recent survey by Fuji Television 53 percent of respondents said they opposed restarting nuclear, but the same percentage also said they approved of Abe's government.  Tokyo elected a pro-nuclear mayor earlier this month.  

The government's proposal "will become official after an expected approval by the cabinet," the WSJ stated.

Abe's government has also threatened to withdraw approval for many of the country's troubled solar power projects, some of which are struggling to find land and financing. Renewables like solar and wind, not including hydroelectricity, generate only 2-to-3 percent of Japan's electricity. 

The proposal comes as signs emerge in Germany that the pendulum there could swing back to supporting nuclear. Germany decided to abandon nuclear after Fukushima and, like Japan, its CO2 emissions have surged.

In the U.S, the Obama administration recently warned that more nuclear plant closures such as the four premature shutdowns of the last two years could cause the country to miss its climate goals.

Nuclear emits no CO2 during the generation and has a very low CO2 footprint over its lifecycle, from mining to construction to retirement; in that sense it is comparable to wind and it trumps solar.

While Abe clearly wants to restart nuclear, it's not yet known to what extent he might back alternative and superior forms of nuclear power that are gaining attention worldwide (see links below for more). 

Technologies such as thorium fuel and nonconventional reactors that use molten salt, pebble bed, "fast neutron" and other designs augur significant improvements in nuclear waste management, safety, weapons threats, efficiency and costs. Unlike traditional reactors, many of them could also serve as sources of clean heat for high temperature industrial process. 

They could also power water desalination, which is one reason why Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (where Japan is supporting South Korean reactors) are ramping up nuclear programs. Are you listening, drought stricken California?

Photo is from Press Information Bureau, Government of India, via Wikimedia 

Energizing Japan:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards