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Editorial: Japan's major turn toward nuclear power without debate is unacceptable

The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has decided to revise Japan's nuclear energy policy, with the promotion of the long-term utilization and rebuilding of existing nuclear power plants forming a main pillar of the shift.

    This is a major policy reversal that lowers the banner of "phasing out dependence on nuclear power," which successive administrations had upheld following the March 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. This huge decision, which will affect future generations, has been made without broad debate, and we cannot overlook this.

    The move effectively renders the rule that nuclear plants can be "operated for up to 40 years and no longer than 60 years" useless, making it possible to extend their operating life. The administration says that nuclear reactors earmarked for decommissioning will be replaced by "next generation advanced reactors" with enhanced safety.

    Concerns remain, however, about the safety of aging reactors, and even if the advanced reactors are designed to comply with new safety standards, their track record is limited. Moreover, it is contradictory to underscore the safety of advanced reactors while continuing to use existing ones as if to say "they're OK even if they're old."

    Another issue is that there is still no solution in sight to the problem of nuclear waste that continues to pile up from the operation of nuclear reactors.

    The government says it will promote a nuclear fuel cycle and handle the final disposal of high-level nuclear waste, but it has not managed to do so after decades of trial and error. It is irresponsible to make empty promises.

    Even more problematic is the fact that officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and experts promoting nuclear power have led the discussions, which have proceeded with a foregone conclusion. Their decision was reached just four months after the prime minister's directive in late August.

    It is true that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns over energy supplies, and that in Europe moves to return to nuclear power have spread. But Japan faces a high risk of earthquakes. Efforts to extend the life of and rebuild nuclear stations do nothing to confront the crisis at hand. Crying out for a return to nuclear energy in spite of this is a tactic that takes advantage of the current crisis.

    It is necessary to mobilize all possible policies to work toward Japan's international pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But is relying on nuclear power the best way to do this? In addition to concerns about safety, it has been pointed out that renewable energy is superior in terms of the cost of generating electricity. Nuclear power is a business that spans a century from construction of the plant to its operation and eventual decommissioning. It could end up becoming a massive negative legacy.

    The Fukushima nuclear disaster greatly changed the public's sense of values. People have reflected on the structure in which the risks of hosting nuclear power plants were imposed on rural areas, and power saving efforts have also progressed.

    If the Japanese government makes light of these changes and steers toward the utilization of nuclear energy, it will not gain the public's understanding. It should reconsider its move.

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