Japan needs nuclear, says World Economic Forum

24 April 2012

A new report on the world's changing energy architecture from high-level policy organisation the World Economic Forum (WEF) warns Japan risks jeopardising its energy security if it turns its back on nuclear power.

The WEF report, New Energy Architecture: Enabling an Effective Transition, looks at the readiness of 124 individual countries for a transition to the sustainable and secure energy architecture required to harness economic growth. Whether rationalising and reorganising mature energy systems, capitalising on significant hydrocarbon resources, growing energy supply to support economic expansion or striving to access basic energy resources at affordable prices, countries will have to deal with trade-offs and "difficult choices", the report notes.

"Never before have we experienced such pressure for change in the way we source, supply and consume energy," explained Roberto Bocca, WEF senior director and head of energy industries. "Decision-makers must understand how they are being impacted by the changing dynamics and how they can effectively create desired change, especially as the choices they make will determine the speed, direction and cost of the transition."

Spotlight on Japan

Japan forms the focus of one of two in-depth studies prepared in support of the report, as an example of an archetypal country that in WEF parlance needs to "rationalise" and re-organise mature energy systems. Such reorganisation has become a more prominent concern in Japan since the Fukushima accident, which has led to an unprecedented level of debate and stakeholder engagement about the future directions that the country's energy architecture will take. The ensuing review of Japanese energy policy "will result in the most significant shocks to the sector since the response to oil shocks in the 1970s", the report finds.

Prior to Fukushima, Japan had been planning to meet 60% of its national primary energy demand with nuclear power, in line with environmental sustainability targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 54% (from 2003 levels) by 2050. In the months following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, high-ranking government officials promised that Japan would reduce its reliance on nuclear power and high-running public feelings against nuclear power have been well documented.

Japan's continued need for nuclear power is not questioned by the report, which notes that a hasty withdrawal from nuclear could be disastrous for Japan. "Decommissioning nuclear power plants is expensive and any rapid change would jeopardize Japan’s energy security and increase its dependence on fossil fuel imports. Equally, a major shift towards renewables would require a transition on a scale never seen before and necessitate vast amounts of financial investment," the in-depth study notes. Instead, it urges Japan to focus in the coming years on restoring a secure energy supply. The country should "rethink" its approach to nuclear energy, including looking to continue R&D in an effort to "build a stronger nuclear industry" as well as making "fundamental changes" to how its nuclear energy sector is run and regulated to ensure transparency and accountability, vital to secure the public acceptance it needs.

Don't be hasty

WEF's New Energy Architecture report takes pains to point out that decision-makers worldwide need to take into account the effects of decisions across the energy value chain, and balance competing imperatives. It uses the example of Germany's post-Fukushima experiences to highlight the way "trade-offs" can be unconsciously made, with hurried decisions leading to unintended consequences.

Germany's response to the Fukushima incident of immediately closing its oldest nuclear plants and foreshortening the lives of its remaining reactors, alongside a renewed commitment to renewables, was intended to bring long-term environmental and economic benefits. However, these actions may instead have negative economic and environmental impacts, the study finds, citing impacts on German employment, predicted electricity price increases and rising carbon emissions as Germany turns to coal and gas plants to replace nuclear generation in the short term.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News