Nuclear or not to nuclear: Japan struggles with the question

Japan backs off a 5-day-old declaration to phase out nuclear power as it continues to agonize over its energy future. Someone should whisper "thorium" into Prime Minister Noda's ear.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Japan faces a Hamlet-sized question over nuclear power. Stop agonizing. Go for thorium and other nuclear alternatives that could replace conventional uranium reactors.

They say a week is a long time in politics. Make that 5 days.

That's how long it took the Japanese government to back off its statement last Friday that it would completely phase out nuclear power by 2040.

"We are going to begin an extremely difficult challenge," declared Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in announcing the plan as reported by The Guardian newspaper on Sept. 14. "No matter how diffiicult it is, we can no longer put it off."

Well, it seems there's extremely difficult, and then there's really, really extremely difficult. By yesterday, the language from Tokyo had transformed from bold determination into sheepish second thoughts.

"Japan has effectively abandoned a commitment to end its reliance on nuclear power by 2040," The Guardian wrote. The about face came as Japan's Cabinet "gave only a vague endorsement" of a report that provided the basis for last Friday's no-more-nukes declaration.

The report had called for renewable energy like wind and solar to comprise 30 percent of the country's energy mix - the same proportion that nuclear had contributed prior to shut downs following the Fukushima meltdowns last year, and an eightfold increase from 2010 renewables levels. The plan also relied on sustainable fossil fuel technologies, professing that, "We will launch all possible policy measures to achieve a nuclear-free society by the 2030s."

But as The Guardian noted, the Cabinet's tepid endorsement yesterday "dropped any mention of plans to complete the phase-out some time in the 2030s."

Trade and industry minister Yukio Edano acknowledged that, "Whether we can become nuclear free by the 2030s is not something to be achieved only with a decision by policy makers. It also depends on the will of (electricity) users, technological innovation and the environment for energy internationally in the next decade or two."

The prevarication reflects strong public opposition to nuclear, versus pressure from business and industry which says that the shut down will drive up energy costs and force companies to relocate operations to foreign countries.

Nuclear supporters also note that in the absence of nuclear, more fossil fuels will increase Japan's emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. Japan has for now temporarily shut down almost all of its 54 nuclear reactors and is importing fossil fuels to help replace the electricity output.

As the government tries to work out a plan, the Cabinet said it will "listen to the views of the public, the nuclear industry, businesses, and communities that depend on atomic facilities for jobs."

Recommendation: Yes, build new solar and wind facilities. But don't abandon nuclear. Now's the moment for Japan to shift away from conventional uranium-based nuclear technologies, and to build safer and more efficient reactors based on alternative technologies like thorium fuel, molten salt and others. At least one Japanese utility, Chubu Electric, is evaluating thorium. This should rise up the national agenda. Alternative nuclear won't happen in 5 days or even a week. But conventional nuclear has had a 50-year run. It's time for a change.

Photo of Edwin Booth as Hamlet circa 1870 by J. Gurney & Son, N.Y., via Wikimedia.

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