Japan puts off nuclear policy commitment

19 September 2012

The Japanese government has already stalled on its nuclear phase-out policy, with prime minister Yoshihiko Noda explaining that 'flexibility' remains important when facing 'a variety of uncertainties.'

The vague statement from Noda followed a cabinet meeting yesterday that saw discussion of energy goals announced only four days earlier in an Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy, developed by the National Policy Unit. The document called for the use of nuclear power to end 'in the 2030s', among other things, and was approved at the cabinet meeting yesterday - but not before the vague timeline was dropped.

Noda said that the strategy still served to express the direction that Japan would take and he did not expect this to change. But 'on the other hand, he noted, we are influenced by a number of uncertainties.' He pointed out that implementing the new strategy would mean uprooting long-held policies, and 'you need a strategy that combines both sides.' Through discussion with all the parties concerned he 'would like to achieve a steady energy policy while constantly reviewing.'
The strategy set out some basics for nuclear power - that reactors would only operate for 40 years instead of the industry standard 50-60 years, and that those currently offline could restart only after approval from the incoming Nuclear Regulation Authority. The strategy said that the reprocessing and recycling of used nuclear fuel would continue. It is not yet clear if the government will act to disbar the completion and operation of two reactors under construction (Shimane 3 and Ohma 1). If completed, their operating lives would end in the mid-2050s based on the 40-year rule.

While a clear energy policy would be essential for the huge investments in renewables called for by the country's strategy, it is equally important for the successful continuation of nuclear power in Japan at any level. There has been uncertainty since former prime minister Naoto Kan began the discussion on a new policy set in July 2011. The result has been a rush among utilities to import LNG, with knock-on effects in trade balance and carbon dioxide emissions. 

The previous energy strategy wanted nuclear power to expand to supply 50% of electricity as a main way to cut emissions. This was scrapped after the severe triple-reactor accident at Fukushima Daiichi and the collapse of public confidence in corporate, governmental and regulatory competence on nuclear safety.

Energy policy is very important to Japan's national strategy because the country imports around 96% of its fuel for electricity. Heavy use of fossil fuels became too expensive and polluting in the 1970s, so leaders turned to nuclear power for its enrivonmental, economic and energy security qualities. Nuclear manufacturing and technology went on to become Japanese exports in their own right as another element supporting the country while the reprocessing and recycling of used nuclear fuel reduced electricity fuel imports to 82%. Noda must consider these factors as well as public pressure while elections approach in August 2013.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News