SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — Japan said Friday that it would seek to phase out nuclear power by 2040 — a historic shift for a country that has long staked its future on such energy, but one that falls far short of the decisive steps the government had promised in the wake of the world’s second-largest nuclear plant disaster last year.
Although the long-awaited energy policy was named the “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy” by its authors, it extended the expected transition away from nuclear power by at least a decade and includes caveats that appear to allow some plants to operate for decades past even the new deadline.
The government had been considering several options: whether to close all the plants over time or to maintain enough reactors to provide a smaller but still substantial percentage of the country’s electricity needs. Before the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan depended on its reactors for about 30 percent of its electricity and had planned to raise that share to more than 50 percent by 2030.
The announcement comes after months of increasing anxiety and intense political pressure from those on both sides of the debate who believe Japan’s future is at stake. Many political and business leaders argue that shutting nuclear plants would doom the resource-poor country to high energy costs and a deeper economic malaise. But many Japanese, while acknowledging the economic upheaval it could cause, have expressed hope that the country will phase out nuclear energy within two decades and a nascent, but increasingly vocal antinuclear movement has pressed for even faster action.
While important for setting a tone, the announced strategy is subject to vast change, not only because of the long lead time, but also because the unpopular prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, and his governing Democratic Party are likely to lose the next national election, which could be called within the next several months.
Analysts have suggested the Democrats timed the announcement to give them a political lift, but it is unlikely to appease either the antinuclear movement or powerful business interests.
Those who favor a phaseout blasted the strategy announced Friday as too vague and drawn out.
“It’s trickery with words and numbers,” said Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a research group based in Tokyo. “The zero number might be symbolic politically, but in reality, it holds little meaning.”
And an influential business federation, Keidanren, this week made clear that eliminating nuclear power was “unrealistic and unreachable,” according to its chairman, Hiromasa Yonekura.
With the long-term energy plan set, the political battle is set to refocus on the struggle by the government to build consensus for reopening the vast majority of the country’s reactors, which were idled after the nuclear catastrophe, amid public opposition to restarts until better safety regulations were in place.
The government has sought repeatedly to regain the public’s trust, most recently by scrapping its former nuclear regulatory agency and creating a new one. But that plan has already come under fire, with criticism focusing on Shunichi Tanaka, the head of a committee that would set nuclear policy and retain oversight over the new agency and its leadership. Mr. Tanaka is considered suspect by those who favor tighter regulation because he helped lead a former government commission tasked with building a strong nuclear industry — raising fears that the new regulator will be as lax as the old.
In announcing the energy plan, Motohisa Furukawa, the minister of state for national policy, said there was no change to the government’s quest to restart those reactors. And although the long-term plan stipulates that no new reactors will be built, it leaves open the possibility that seven reactors at varying stages of construction could be activated. That decision would be left up to the new nuclear committee headed by Mr. Tanaka.
And although the government said reactors would be closed after life spans of 40 years, it also said that exemptions could be granted, suggesting that the 2040 deadline was flexible. (By comparison, Germany, which in 2010 relied on reactors for 26 percent of its electricity, was rattled enough by the Fukushima disaster to announce a move away from nuclear power by 2022.)
At an unusually lively news conference, seemingly exasperated reporters pressed for whether any firm decisions had been made. One reporter for a Japanese newspaper suggested that if reactors under construction are allowed to come on line and get exemptions for operating more than 40 years, “then we could still have reactors running in the 2070s.”
Mr. Furukawa did not dispute that possibility.
The energy plan underscores the challenges Japan faces in extricating itself from nuclear power.
If idled reactors were permanently closed this year, power companies would be hit with losses totaling $55.9 billion, making at least four of the utilities insolvent, according to the government’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. Because the industry is tightly regulated, allowing almost no competition, the country relies on those power companies and can ill afford to have them go bankrupt.
The 2040 time frame would allow most of the existing reactors to live out their 40-year life span, heading off costly losses for their operators. Japanese utilities have already been saddled with the huge costs of buying oil and natural gas to meet the nuclear shortfall since the reactors were taken offline, a burden that would be alleviated once their reactors are restarted.
With only two reactors operating, Japan struggled through a sweltering summer after parts of the country were asked to conserve electricity use by as much as 15 percent, the second year such requests were made. Power companies fired up old gas- and oil-powered stations and scrambled to secure imported fossil fuels.
Despite fears of widespread blackouts, however, none materialized, strengthening nuclear critics’ argument that Japan could do without nuclear energy.
But the Keidanren business federation and others have insisted that the higher energy costs are crippling the country’s economy. Tokyo Electric, Japan’s largest utility and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has increased rates for both homes (an average of more than 8 percent) and businesses (an average of about 15 percent).
Businesss leaders warn that such costs will prompt more companies to move their operations overseas. And costly fuel imports already contributed last year to Japan’s first annual trade deficit in more than 30 years and made the nation more dependent on oil and natural gas from the volatile Middle East and Russia.
Whatever its choices, Japan is set to significantly increase its investment in clean energy sources, in part to avoid enlarging its carbon footprint.
The balancing act that the government is attempting with its new energy policy made little impression on the antinuclear protesters who now gather every Friday night in Tokyo.
Many had expected the government to at least phase out the reactors by 2030, a date that had initially been discussed, and some were angry that the time frame was at least a decade longer.
“They’re ignoring the terror that many of us feel toward nuclear power,” said Kumi Tomiyasu, an employee at a Tokyo-based printing company who attended a rally in front of the prime minister’s office on Friday. “By sticking with nuclear for so long, the government has put the interests of power companies and big business above those of the Japanese people.”—www.shafaqna.com/English