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Japan sticks with 20%-22% goal for nuclear in the energy mix

Fukushima still looms over debate and some plants are nearing termination

Nuclear power has been the topic of intense debate in Japan ever since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is standing firm by its goal of expanding nuclear energy into 20% to 22% of the country's energy mix by 2030, though it still lacks a clear strategy for promoting nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns in 2011.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on Wednesday drafted a new outline for Japan's energy strategy over the medium to long term, which could win cabinet approval as early as this summer. This would replace the existing policy crafted in 2014.

In addition to nuclear power, the ministry also stuck with its 22% to 24% goal for renewable energy. Both targets were first set in 2015.

Despite the controversy over their safety and decommissioning costs, Tokyo considers nuclear plants an important source of baseload power -- electricity that can be generated at any time of day and regardless of weather conditions. Still, only eight of Japan's nuclear reactors have been brought back online since Fukushima. About 30 reactors would need to be in operation to achieve the government's power mix target.

To complicate matters further, Japan set a 40-year limit on the operating life of nuclear reactors after the 2011 disaster, with the chance of one extension of up to 20 years. This means many existing reactors will be decommissioned starting in 2030. The government needs to start thinking about replacing or building new facilities soon if it wants to achieve its target, but the ministry shied away from the topic in the policy draft over fears of public backlash.

"The government says nuclear power is one option for reducing carbon emissions, but it's impossible without plans to replace old reactors," Tokyo University of Science professor Takeo Kikkawa said in a meeting with ministry officials Wednesday. "It's bizarre that this is not explicitly written into the draft."

Tokyo maintains it is not considering the option of building new reactors at all at this point. A change in this stance "could provide fodder for the political opposition in coming elections and other settings," a government source said.

The government also wants to turn renewable energy into a major power source by 2050, though this may prove no easier. It currently costs 24 yen (22 cents) to generate 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity using solar power in Japan, or 2.5 times as much as in Germany. Wind power also costs twice as much, at 21 yen per kilowatt-hour. Because Japan has a feed-in tariff for renewable power, the higher prices are passed on to the customers.

The economy ministry is planning to develop solar panels that are more efficient. It is also looking to overhaul the feed-in tariffs in response to criticism that they only keep prices high.

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