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Editorial: Energy policy without nuclear power necessary in Japan

It has been 10 years since the severe accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Fuel was left to boil dry, resulting in nuclear meltdowns and multiple explosions. Radioactive materials were released into the surrounding environment and the wind carried them, contaminating homes, farmlands, forests and rivers.

    We witnessed a catastrophe that threatened people's lives and turned them upside down, and we thought we promised ourselves never to repeat such a disaster.

    Keeping in mind that Japan has 54 nuclear reactors, an abnormally high number in an earthquake-prone country, a great transformation away from the country's nuclear power policy is inevitable. Our belief at the time of the disaster, that Japan needs to decommission nuclear plants, starting with high-risk facilities, and build a society that doesn't rely on nuclear energy, has not changed.

    But has the transformation towards a zero-nuclear society progressed?

    To sum up Japan's energy policy over the past decade, it's been a return to nuclear power ignorant of reality.

    Shackled by its own attachment to nuclear power, Japan has failed to make bold policy changes even though it was the very country affected by the nuclear disaster. As a result, the country has been left behind in the world's current of rapidly expanding renewable energy.

    In the meantime, just nine reactors have been restarted since March 2011. Nuclear power can no longer be called Japan's main source of energy. The government should start by facing that reality.

    Following the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, the then administration of now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) announced the phasing out of nuclear power to make Japan into a "zero-nuclear" country in the future. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that succeeded the DPJ government following the 2012 general election, however, reversed this policy and advanced the restart of idled reactors.

    The current basic energy policy places nuclear power as an "important base-load power source" and sets a goal of having nuclear power make up 20-22% of the country's energy sources in fiscal 2030. The same policy calls for a 22-24% proportion of renewables in the power source composition.

    The reality, however, is different. Nuclear power made up only 6% of Japan's energy in fiscal 2019. And the current goal is unrealistic.

    One of the reasons it's not going according to the government's plan is that public distrust of nuclear power in Japan cannot be dispelled.

    The nuclear watchdog that was previously part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry was transformed into the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), and stricter safety standards have since been implemented. However, evacuation plans that would protect the lives of residents in the event of a severe nuclear accident are still not subject to the NRA's safety screening.

    The Japanese government insists that passing the NRA screening serves as the basis for a rector's safety, but the NRA's stance conflicts with that of the government as the regulator argues that a mere pass doesn't guarantee safety.

    Meanwhile, power companies, which are ultimately responsible for securing safety of their nuclear reactors, have not sufficiently reformed their awareness.

    It has recently emerged that a worker at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station in Niigata Prefecture -- the nuclear plant the utility wants to restart -- used their colleague's ID to enter the plant's central control room. The company also left a seismometer at Fukushima Daiichi's No. 3 reactor broken, which inhibited monitoring of data during a large earthquake that hit northeast Japan in February, measuring an upper 6 on Japan's seismic intensity scale. TEPCO has failed to apply lessons from the 2011 disaster. When it comes to nuclear power, a serious accident has far-reaching repercussions.

    Meanwhile, the competitive power of nuclear energy has also declined over the past decade. While its relatively low cost to produce electricity was used as its sales point, the cost of additional safety measures has skyrocketed since the disaster, making nuclear energy lose economic efficiency.

    The ballooning cost of the construction of the latest model reactors has driven domestic nuclear reactor manufacturers Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to practically abandon their export plans.

    On the other hand, the cost of producing renewable energy and the price of storage cell batteries have dropped significantly. In keeping with such reality, Japan should review the cost of each energy source and paint a picture of a future without nuclear power.

    To do this, the major challenge lies with how Japan can advance climate change measures without nuclear power.

    Last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Japan's plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero in real terms by 2050. It's believed that he assumes nuclear power will be used to achieve this goal, and accordingly has the renovation of existing plants in mind.

    Considering the public distrust in and declining competitiveness of nuclear power, however, global warming countermeasures dependent on nuclear energy are unrealistic. It would be wiser to invest in the expansion of renewables.

    While many of the Japanese government's policies remain the same, the decision to scrap the problem-ridden Monju fast-breeder is a crucial change. While it was a decision driven by mounting pressure, it symbolizes the collapse of the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing spent fuel, which Japan had long held as a national policy.

    Concerns remain in the international community regarding the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation, as the process produces plutonium, which can be used for nuclear arms. A swift policy shift is required.

    We also want to see further implementation of electric power system reforms. It is essential for Japan to accelerate efforts to streamline transmission lines as part of the country's infrastructure and to allow the flexible use of power grids so that introduction of renewable energy goes smoothly.

    The 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster is not a closure. It is only a passing point on the road to a society without nuclear power.

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