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Japan may call for more nuclear plants down the road

Proposed energy policy change likely to meet stiff public, political resistance

Kansai Electric Power has restarted Unit 4 at its Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government will consider advocating building new nuclear power capacity or replacing existing equipment in the future, calling it a necessary step to maintaining a stable energy supply over the long term.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will set up an expert panel as early as this month to discuss revising the government's strategic energy plan. The focus will be on nuclear energy, which the plan now positions as an "important base-load power source" that is stable and inexpensive to operate. The ministry intends to have the panel discuss new or updated capacity from a long-term perspective.

The issue will then be handed off to a ministry energy committee. The ministry aims to have the new version of the strategic plan approved by the cabinet this fiscal year.

Making the case

The current plan, released in 2014, scrapped the Democratic Party's goal of eliminating nuclear power entirely. But it makes no mention of new construction, in a nod to public concerns after the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

With the operating life of reactors now capped at 40 years as a rule, old facilities for which the operator does not apply for an extension will be taken out of service one by one. Though more are expected to come back online, the country's nuclear capacity will shrink steadily unless new facilities are built or existing ones rebuilt.

Under the Paris climate change accord, Japan targets an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A continued lack of new nuclear construction would prolong the country's dependence on fossil fuels, making it tougher to control emissions.

Some argue that Japan should maintain some minimal nuclear capacity to ensure a stable energy supply as well as to maintain technology and talent related to nuclear power and plant decommissioning. Major power companies complain that the lack of clarity from the government makes it tougher to commit to long-term strategic investments.

The ministry envisions the new plan retaining the current version's commitment to reducing dependence on nuclear energy "to the extent possible" and advocating accelerated adoption of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. Japan will remain committed to the Paris accord, even as the U.S. pulls out, and the revised plan will spell out a focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The unreliability of solar and wind power, which rely on favorable weather, makes it all the more important to have stable energy sources such as nuclear.

Still a tall order

The industry said in 2015 that it seeks to have nuclear make up 20-22% of Japan's energy mix in fiscal 2030, with renewables accounting for 22-24% and fossil fuels 56%.

Meeting this target would require about 30 reactors. Existing nuclear capacity can get only as far as 15% if the 40-year rule is followed. Even if utilities manage to coax enough additional operating time out of reactors to meet the 2030 targets, this can only go so far. The ministry fears that its long-term energy goals would come to naught if capacity keeps dwindling.

The government has considered nuclear an inexpensive power source. But stricter regulations imposed after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster require adding new safety measures and other work, at a cost of around 100 billion yen ($908 million) per reactor. Though Kansai Electric Power has said it will consider renovations at its Mihama nuclear plant, performing the necessary work on existing reactors would cost a whopping 800 billion yen.

New plants not only cost trillions of yen each, but also face the risk of public resistance. Numerous challenges are involved, including choosing a viable location that will permit a new plant and maintaining the necessary personnel and skills. To overcome these hurdles, steps must be taken to avoid putting all the risk on one company, such as having multiple operators run a plant together.

Nuclear exports are a centerpiece of the government's growth strategy, yet winning orders abroad will be tough if Japan itself cannot maintain plants of its own. And steps must be taken to lay the groundwork for new capacity, including finding a disposal site for the radioactive waste generated when decommissioning old reactors.

A tough ask

The government likely hopes to head off criticism by discussing the need for nuclear power as ultimately a problem for the future. The ministry plans to spend nearly a year winning support for the idea. But new nuclear construction remains an unpopular proposition.

The opposition Democratic Party, which seeks to have Japan scrap nuclear power entirely soon, refuses to give its blessing to any new projects. The idea is also opposed by many lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito, which will need to approve the new plan before it goes to the cabinet. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is also leading protests against nuclear power and has criticized the government's position.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration will last until September 2021 at the latest. Even a revised plan that specifically discusses new construction could change again under a new government.

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday that multiple workers at a research facility suffered internal exposure to radioactive material due to careless handling. This comes on top of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings providing false information related to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and a financial crisis at Toshiba stemming from massive losses on U.S. nuclear operations. Much more will need to be done if the government hopes to convince the public that more nuclear plants are a good idea.


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