Japan’s green future requires a return to its nuclear past

(Bloomberg) – Roughly once a month, the same group of two dozen Japanese government officials, executives, and professors from the company log in to a mild conference room in white and beige at the country’s Department of Commerce, Trade, and Industry to plan its long-term energy future, everyone has a printed agenda, a tablet computer and a box of green tea and politely puts a rectangular business card around to request a speech. Beneath the rigid formality there is an increasingly divisive debate: what role does nuclear energy play a decade after the Fukushima disaster? Since Japan pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050 in October, many members of the advisory group have come to the same conclusion. In order to meet its global climate protection commitments, the country has to restart almost every nuclear reactor it closed after the collapse of 2011 and then build more. This is a daunting engineering challenge that will require the nation to speed up the resumption of idling and find a permanent solution to the onerous problem of radioactive waste storage. Equally difficult will be for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration to convince cautious regulators and a broader public in Japan who have deep safety concerns. “We should hurry and rebuild confidence in nuclear energy,” said Masakazu Toyoda, a member of the 24-strong government body that is developing new guidelines. “This is a question of energy security.” According to Toyoda, Japan must have 27 of its remaining 36 reactors online by 2030 to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Other estimates put this number closer to 30. So far, only 9 units have been put back into operation since a restart program began in 2015. Read more: Can countries achieve their net zero emissions targets by 2050? Nuclear now accounts for around 6% of the Japanese energy mix, after around 30% of the Fukushima disaster. Immediately afterwards, Japan closed all 54 reactors, around a third of which were permanently scrapped. After a magnitude 9 earthquake in March 2011, more than 160,000 people were evacuated from the region around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. This was the largest earthquake ever recorded to hit Japan, causing a massive tsunami that overwhelmed the facility, cut off power to the cooling systems and led to the collapse of three reactor cores. The incident convinced some governments that the risks of nuclear power far outweighed its benefits, and prompted some, including Germany and Taiwan, to set deadlines to shut down their plant fleets. The mammoth cost of building new plants and frequent delays have since deterred the fuel revival. Still, China plans to have 70 gigawatts of nuclear power plant capacity by 2025 to bring emissions to zero by 2060. This is equivalent to adding around 20 new reactors. Read more: The Global Debate About Nuclear PowerNuclear power generates around 10% of nuclear power According to the International Energy Agency, global electricity fell from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s, and new plant construction is well below the pace of closure. In many ways, nuclear power remains an almost perfect solution for a resource-poor island nation like Japan: it requires minimal fuel from overseas, takes up little land in contrast to solar and onshore wind, and produces carbon-free electricity around the clock. In fact, the government aimed for nuclear power to be the main source of electricity until the Fukushima disaster. According to a February poll, 39% of Japanese want all nuclear power plants to be closed. Many local prefectural governments that are required to sign reactor restart plans have been reluctant to wave permits while courts backed requests to temporarily shut down some operational reactors. This contradiction is problematic for a Japanese government, which has promised to reduce emissions by 26% by 2030 compared to 2013 under the Paris commitments and should review and possibly tighten these targets this year. “Japan will change its stance on nuclear power somewhere on the path to net zero emissions,” said Frank Yu, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie. The carbon dioxide intensity in the Japanese energy sector rose sharply in the years after the incident in Fukushima, according to IEA data, more environmentally harmful alternatives. Today, fossil fuels such as liquefied natural gas and coal are used to generate most of Japan’s electricity. To meet the Paris targets, Japan, the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter, must meet an existing nuclear target of 20% to 22% of its energy mix by 2030. The more ambitious promise for 2050 may require nuclear power to claim an even larger share . “Using a certain amount of nuclear power will be necessary for Japan to become carbon neutral,” Tomoaki Kobayakawa, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., owner of the crippled Fukushima plant, said in an interview. How far Japan should go in building a large nuclear sector, and how feasible it would be, is a current source of controversy among the government’s advisory group. New goals are recommended this year. “Nobody believes the 2030 target is achievable,” said Takeo Kikkawa, professor at the International University of Japan and a member of the panel that is skeptical of the prospects for nuclear energy. “The industry doesn’t think it’s possible, but they won’t admit it.” Nuclear power plants are unlikely to account for more than 15% of Japanese energy by 2030. So far, utilities have requested to restart 27 reactors, 25 of which are operational while two are currently under construction. Toyoda says at least those 27 units must be online if there is any chance of meeting the 2030 target. In December, the Ministry of Commerce announced that nuclear and thermal plants with carbon capture and storage technology could account for 30% to 40%, meaning Japan should be preparing to build new reactors over the next three decades, said Akio Mimura, Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the government body last month. Based on a lifespan of 60 years, Japan will have 23 reactors in December 2050 and 8 reactors by 2060, according to a government presentation. “The government needs to clarify its position,” Mimura told the advisory group. “If we don’t plan to do this now, we won’t have enough nuclear capacity by 2050.” This article is part of Bloomberg Green’s “Carbon Benchmarks” series, which analyzes how countries are planning to achieve net zero emissions. Click here to receive email notifications when new articles are published. (Updates with analyst comment in paragraph 14.) For more articles like this, visit Sign up now to stay up to date with the most trusted business news source. © 2021 Bloomberg LP