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Reviving Japan’s nuclear power industry will not be easy

People holding placards as they march on the street during a demonstration in downtown Tokyo to denounce the Japanese government’s plan to resume nuclear power use, in October 2012.

Jan 3, 2023

Japan is facing its most severe energy crisis in decades and wants to speed up the revival of its nuclear energy industry to reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels.

But restarting more nuclear reactors remains controversial, more than a decade after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

What does the government want?

All the country’s reactors were shut down for safety checks after the Fukushima meltdown, and there are currently 33 considered operable.

By mid-December, nine were generating electricity, meeting a target set by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this summer to help counter energy shortages and cover around 10% of Japan’s winter power consumption.

The national nuclear safety watchdog has approved the restart of seven other reactors in principle, but such moves often face fierce opposition from local communities.

In August, Kishida called for these seven reactors to come online by summer 2023 and said Japan should also consider building next-generation nuclear reactors.

He also said authorities would discuss extending the service life of existing reactors beyond the current 60-year limit if safety can be guaranteed.

Before the Fukushima disaster, nearly a third of Japan’s power generation came from nuclear energy, but in the fiscal year to March 2022, the figure stood at around 7%.

The government is aiming for nuclear power to account for between 20% and 22% of electricity production by 2030, part of efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

What are the obstacles?

The success of these nuclear power ambitions lies with Japan’s independent Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which must give a green light to the plans before they go ahead.

“It will be a challenge” to get existing reactors going again, because some have been “stalled for quite a long time,” said Tom O’Sullivan, a Tokyo-based energy consultant at Mathyos Advisory.

Bringing nuclear plants online could also be complicated by “nervousness about anti-terrorism issues,” he added, pointing to concerns around plants caught in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Given what’s happening with the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, I think the NRA is probably more sensitive nowadays to potential terrorist attacks.”

Surveys show that reticence among the Japanese public toward a nuclear power revival has eased since the war in Ukraine triggered a steep rise in energy prices last year.

But opposition from people living near the plants will remain a sticking point, while reports of security breaches at one large plant in recent years have added to public unease, said analyst Hiroe Yamamoto of Moody’s Japan.

How quickly the government’s nuclear power revival hopes can become reality depends on local authorities but also Kishida’s popularity this year, said Nobuo Tanaka, chair of the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum steering committee.

The prime minister is currently “in trouble,” with his approval ratings dragged down last year by scandals, Tanaka said at a recent news conference.

So “just saying we need (more reactors online) because of high energy prices — this kind of argument may not be sustainable,” and the government must also address issues such as waste disposal, he said.


January 5, 2023 - Posted by | Japan | , ,

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