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Japan signals a shift back to nuclear energy

August 30, 2022

With the nation's energy security under threat and prices rising, Tokyo is making plans to extend aging reactors' lifespans and develop new nuclear power plants.

People take part in a candle vigil in memory of earthquake and tsunami victims
Experts are mulling the extension of reactors' operational lifetimes from the present limit of 40 years to 60 yearsImage: Charly Triballeau/AFP

Eleven years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and successive Japanese governments adopting a cautious line on atomic energy, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has signaled a change of heart.  

Chairing a recent meeting of the Green Transformation Implementation Council, Kishida instructed government officials and energy experts to step up the resumption of operations at more nuclear plants, to look into significantly extending the operational lifetimes of reactors, and to explore development and deployment of next-generation nuclear power facilities.   

The changes are a crucial policy reversal, demonstrating both the negative impact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having on energy prices in Japan and the slow-but-steadz reversal in anti-nuclear attitudes among the Japanese public.  

Kishida has told officials to draw up firm plans for the return to nuclear energy before the end of the year, including more measures to convince skeptics of its value. 

Opposition in retreat

Polls show the opinion shift is already happening, with 74% of people responding to a Yahoo Japan poll in July saying they supported the resumption of more reactors —  a sharp reversal from well over 80% who were firmly against nuclear power in the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant.  

Yet there are still some staunch opponents of nuclear, which they describe as a misguided approach to the nation's energy needs when other — far safer — options are available.  

To date, 10 of the 54 reactors that were operational before the Fukushima crisis are again operational after undergoing extensive seismic remodeling and exhaustive security tests.

White flags along a park in Tokyo to commemorate victims of Fukushima accident
White flags in a Tokyo park mark the events that set off a nuclear crisis and killed thousands 11 years agoImage: Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS

The Japanese government is hoping to have another seven units up and running by next summer and for nuclear power plants to be meeting as much as 20% of the nation's energy needs by 2030.  

Perhaps controversially, experts are also examining the extension of reactors' operational lifetimes from the present limit of 40 years – which is rapidly approaching for some of the older units — to 60 years.  

Hisanori Nei, a professor of energy policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the government's change of direction on nuclear power "comes as no surprise."

"Before the election in July, the government did not want to announce this plan because they were concerned about a backlash, but Kishida won that vote and now he has three years until he has to have another election," Nei told DW.  

"So the timing is not a surprise, as industry has been lobbying hard for this to happen and the ministries have also been releasing policy papers hinting that this was coming."

Are smaller reactor units the answer?

The government's hand has been further forced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy prices, to which Japan is extremely susceptible, as it has no domestic energy resources and relies almost entirely on imports, he added.  

One new technology that has particular promise as a solution, the government believes, is small module reactor units (SMRs).

Japan announced on August 26 that it has reached an outline agreement with the US and nine other countries to cooperate on the development of SMRs, which have a capacity of around 300,000 kilowatts instead of the 1 million kw capacity of a conventional reactor.

TV footage shows smoke ascending from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Okumamachi, northern Japan, Monday, March 14, 2011
This 2011 TV image shows the aftermath of an explosion at the plantImage: NTV/NNN/AP/dapd/picture alliance

The benefits of smaller units are that they are cheaper to construct and less likely to cause a major crisis in the event of an accident. In Japan, the government is considering deploying numerous SMRs to meet the energy needs of individual cities.   

‘No positives' to nuclear

Aileen Mioko-Smith, a campaigner with Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, said there are "no positives" to be drawn from the government's return to nuclear energy.

"Every reactor that they want to restart or extend the operational life of is potentially another Fukushima disaster," she said. "They tell us that they have learned their lessons and that the technology is safe, but they cannot guarantee that."

"But beyond the safety issues, this is just bad energy policy," she emphasized. "To develop these new reactors is going to be very expensive and will take a lot of time. Then the approvals process will take a long time, and then they need to get regulatory approval and the support of people living near these planned new plants." 

"We do not have that sort of time," she said. "Look at the record high temperatures that have been reported around the world this summer. The climate crisis is upon us already and we do not have time to start looking at new technologies that might take a decade to start but may not work at all."

Mioko-Smith believes renewables can play a part in the shift to more environment-friendly energy resources, but there are more immediate measures that can be implemented immediately that will have an instant impact. 

"We need the paradigm shift of being more efficient and conserving more energy so we do not waste what we produce," she said.

More efficient insulation of buildings is one simple measure, while waste heat from industrial processes should also be captured and reused. 

"After Fukushima, when the reactors were all shut down and there was a real energy crunch in Japan, the public responded positively," Mioko-Smith said.

"They dramatically reduced the amount of power they used and became very aware of not wasting resources. I think there is no reason that the public would not respond in exactly the same way again, if they were asked to."

‘Nuclear renaissance'

Professor Nei, however, is convinced that a "nuclear renaissance" is imminent.  

"Events in Ukraine have shown the world, including Japan, the importance of a nation's energy security," he said.

"The government will keep repeating that message to the Japanese public, who have already been shocked at rising fuel prices for their cars and homes," Nei added.

"The other message that they are getting out is that Japan must meet its commitments to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions by 2050 if we are to be truly considered a reliable member of the international community, and nuclear is critical to achieving that," he said.  

"Now, more than a decade after Fukushima, Japan has learned the lessons of that accident," he said.

"We know much more: we understand how to reconstruct, recover and how to ensure safety. Now we need to put those lessons into practice and for Japan to become a leading developer of new nuclear technology and to protect our energy supply."

Edited by: Keith Walker

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea