Japan plans to scrap atomic power by the end of the 2030s, bowing to public pressure after the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused mass evacuations and left areas north of Tokyo uninhabitable for decades.
The country’s first post-Fukushima energy policy approved today by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda means the country will join Germany in abandoning the power source that helped both countries build world-beating economies and models for development from the destruction of World War II.
While the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501) reactors in 2011 led nations from China to France to review atomic policies, including the phase-out ordered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, countries including Britain affirmed plans to rely more on atomic power. Even Japan’s new policy will allow idled reactors to restart during the 27-year wind-down period.
“A whole generation of Japanese will grow up during this transition,” said Vicente López-Ibor, president of Estudio Juridico Internacional, an energy law firm in Madrid. “They will have to decide which renewable-energy technologies should be used, such as offshore wind farms, and consider shale gas too.”
Under the approved policy, the government estimates spending on solar, wind and other types of renewable energy over the next two decades will total 38 trillion yen ($487 billion), with another 84 trillion yen investment in energy-efficient technology, and 6 trillion yen on co-generation systems.
The energy plan is in line with public opinion polls wanting an end to atomic power after the offshore earthquake and 13-meter (40-foot) tsunami triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The decision follows almost all the recommendations made last week by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which may face elections as early as next month.
Japan should strictly enforce the 40-year limit on a reactor’s operational life and ban construction of new atomic plants, the government said in the 20-page report. In the three decades of phasing out nuclear, the policy does allow for restart of some reactors shut after Fukushima if approved by a new regulator.
The DPJ’s plan is a “desperate election gambit,” Richard Katz, an economist and editor-in-chief of the New York-based Oriental Economist Report, wrote in a Sept. 11 report. “If most existing plants are restarted and then they are all shut down after they reach age 40, nuclear power would still supply 15 percent of the country’s electricity as of 2030,” Katz wrote.
Katz’s point was acknowledged last week by Seiji Maehara, the chairman of the DPJ’s policy research committee that made the recommendations. Five reactors would still be operating in 2039 even if the 40-year operation rule is applied, so the country may bring forward the schedule for shutting them down, said Maehara.
The government should use “all its political resources” to achieve the zero-nuclear goal in the 2030s and if possible achieve it before then, Maehara said on Sept. 6.
Only two of Japan’s 50 reactors, located at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Ohi plant, have restarted since the shutdowns ordered after the catastrophe.
“This announcement must become law, otherwise it will be seen as nothing but lip service to buy votes before the coming election,” said Kazue Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan in a statement.
“Right now Japan is replacing a lot of the power by revving up fossil fuel use,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is a lot of room for Japan to do things which would help them to adjust to a no-nuclear policy, for example establishing a unified national power grid and quickly building up renewables sources, since these were largely neglected.”
Phasing out nuclear power means Japan will fail to meet its international pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the figures in the government’s report.
Instead of a target of a 25 percent cut in emissions over the three decades through 2020, Japan should aim for a 20 percent reduction by 2030. Under that goal, Japan’s greenhouse- gas emissions in 2020 would be between 5 percent and 9 percent less than 1990 levels, according to the documents.
The importance of thermal power generation will increase “for the time being” as renewable energy is expensive and often unstable, the government said in the report. To accelerate replacement of old thermal power plants, the government plans to simplify environmental assessments to shorten the approval process for new plants to 12 months from three years.
It’s “very regrettable” the government approved an energy policy to eliminate use of nuclear power, the Federation of Electric Power Companies said in a faxed statement. The policy means the country will face “extremely serious issues” including rising fuel costs and electricity rates and the global warming, it said.
The government hasn’t decided what to do about nuclear power plants now under construction, National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa told reporters at an evening press conference in Tokyo.
Chugoku Electric Power Co. is building a new reactor at its Shimane nuclear plant in western Japan and Electric Power Development Co. is constructing a nuclear plant in Oma near Hokkaido.
“We have outlined the course of the new nuclear policy, that’s the thrust of this strategy,” Furukawa said, when asked about the possibility the country would still have operating reactors after 2039. “There are various factors to be decided to achieve the goal.”
The government plans to maintain its nuclear fuel recycling program, according to the report. The country’s experimental fast-breeder reactor, known as Monju, will be decommissioned after completing studies on how to reduce the toxicity levels and volume of radioactive waste in the country, according to the report. It didn’t say when that would happen.
Prime Minister Noda’s approval ratings have fallen over his push to raise the sales tax and his approval to restart Kansai Electric Power Co. (9503)’s two reactors. Thousands of protesters show up every Friday evening outside Noda’s residence to demand shutdown of the Ohi units and an end to nuclear power.
Before Fukushima, Japan got almost 30 percent of its electricity from atomic power. In debating a post-Fukushima energy policy, the government proposed three options for nuclear energy supply: Zero percent, 15 percent, or 20 percent to 25 percent by 2030. Newspaper polls and public hearings showed citizens overwhelmingly supported the zero option.
“The plan is worth trying, but sooner or later it will be realized it isn’t possible,” Hirofumi Kawachi, an energy analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co., said by phone. “To eliminate nuclear power by the 2030s will need breakthroughs in renewable and energy-efficient technologies.”