Japan's Half-Hearted Nuclear Phase-Out

Although the Japanese government in last week unveiled a new national energy policy which aims to phase-out nuclear power by 2030, it is a policy so riddled with contradictions as to be almost meaningless as a predictor of future energy uses.

Surprisingly, the government chose not to put a number on nuclear power’s contribution. It was widely thought that it would adopt a split-the-difference figure of 15 percent as nuclear power’s contribution to the total electricity mix. The previous plan had projected 30 percent, growing to 40 percent.

Former prime minister Naoto Kan ordered the reappraisal in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster that began with a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Rather than set a number, it proposed a series of guidelines: 1). No nuclear power plant would be allowed to operate beyond its 40-year life span; 2). Any restarts of the currently idled plants would need approval of the new established independent Nuclear Regulatory Agency; 3). No new plants will be constructed. If strictly adhered to, that should mean that virtually all nuclear power would be eliminated around 2040.

One of the ironies about the plan is that it will implies more, not fewer, nuclear power plants in operation at least in the short term. That’s because Japan is very close to zero option now. At present, only two plants are producing power; 48 other plants are idle (not counting the four badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi plants.

That means some way will have to be found to sort out which of the plants will be allowed to go back online and which ones will be slated for decommissioning. Considering the amount of flak that the government took this summer to get just two back in operation, it may not be an easy situation to manage politically.

The new policy that calls for no new nuclear power plants to be built was almost immediately contradicted by a statement that the policy did not mean new plants that were in the process of being built. On the day of the deadly earthquake and tsunami, three new plants were under construction, either in early stages or, in one case, virtually complete. The new government seemed to be saying that work could eventually resume on these three units.

Assuming they don’t come on line until, say 2014 at the earliest and have a 40-year life span, that would push the day of reckoning past 2050, a very long time span in which almost anything could happen that might change the equation.

Another anomaly in the new energy policy is its proposal to retain reprocessing of spent fuel, at least in the near future. If the government is ordering nuclear power to be phased out, that procedure, in which usable uranium and plutonium are recaptured and recycled into new fuel would seem out of place.

The final policy statement obviously tries to reconcile several conflicting points of view. They include public opinion, which is still running strongly against continued use of nuclear power in Japan. Anti-nuclear demonstrators keep a vigil outside the prime minister’s office to drive this home.

That is offset by concerns of the business interests, led by the main business lobbying group, Keidanren, that there will not be enough power to keep factories running without retaining at least some nuclear power capability.

There are also concerns of on the part of localities that are heavily dependent on nuclear power for taxes, especially those of Aomori prefectures on the northern tip of Honshu island, the location of several important nuclear-industrial complexes, most significantly the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing center.

It is understood that prefectural concerns weighed heavily in the policy’s statement to continue support for reprocessing. The statement was bolstered by implied threats that the prefecture would stop accepting spent fuel from Japan’s nuclear projects. The prefecture’s spent fuel pool is now largely full, from fuel awaiting reprocessing.

Beyond these parochial concerns is Japan’s precarious energy situation. Massive imports of liquified natural gas have already contributed to the country’s first trade deficit in years. It is not for nothing that the country invested so heavily in nuclear power, as it has almost no fossil fuels within its own borders, and much that it does import comes from volatile parts of the world.

July was the first month in more than 30 years that Japan did not import a single barrel of crude oil from Iran. Washington has been increasing the pressure on Tokyo to steadily decrease its reliance on Iranian as part of the US’s growing squeeze on on Tehran without doing very much, to help Japan replace these lost resources. Japan was once Iran’s second largest customer after China.

U.S, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman has also voiced worries about how a nuclear power phase-out might rebound on other countries. If the world’s third largest economy continues to snap up fossil fuel, energy prices all over the world will be impacted, he reportedly told a high level visiting official sent to explain the new policy to Washington.

That official, Seiji Maehara, responded that Japan might set a target, but might fall short of fully committing to it. A strict nuclear phase-out would inspire fossil fuel producers to jack up prices, he said. Japan is already paying top dollar to imports tons of liquefied natural gas to keep the lights on.

Of course, to many in Japan all of this points to a need to double down on renewable energy, mainly wind and solar, which today account for a small fraction of the energy mix. A major proponent is the country’s richest business man, Masayoshi Son. head of Softbank. No matter what option is chosen [in the policy report], renewables must be increased in Japan at top speed, he said in August while announcing his company’s part in the country’s largest solar power project.