Japan’s (Un-clear) Nuclear Energy Policy: An Observation

Hina Pandey
August 04, 2019


Image Courtesy: Environment Progress

Nuclear energy has been looked at as a viable option for expanding the energy basket since a very long time. However, the timeline of nuclear energy tells us that after every nuclear accident, such as the Three Mile Island (TMI) in the US and Chernobyl (1979 & 1986 respectively) in the former Soviet Union, countries have taken long and short pauses with regard to their nuclear energy policy. Such approaches have been undertaken to comprehensively review their safety standards, either to continue business as usual, to pause nuclear energy development in some cases and phase out nuclear energy entirely in some. The most recent nuclear accident at Fukushima (Japan) that took place almost eight years ago (11 March 2011) – had a somewhat similar reaction. However, in this case, Climate Change and the necessity to reduce carbon emissions has added a new dimension to the role that civilian nuclear programs and nuclear energy has to play in Japan’s energy mix.

Thus, Japan’s decision to reduce the contribution of nuclear into its energy mix significantly poses questions for its clean energy commitments, more so because Japan has been an active advocate of addressing Climate Change. Under the Paris Agreement, which Japan signed on November 8, 2016, the country has pledged to reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG) Emissions by 26% by the fiscal year 2030 (as per the figures provided by the official website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan). While Japan’s commitments have not changed since the Paris Agreement’s enforcement, its share of nuclear energy has certainly declined. As per the information provided by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) – the country had planned to expand the nuclear energy’s contribution to electricity to at-least 40% by the year 2017; which now has been reduced to 20% by the year 2030.

A country like Japan, not bestowed with abundant natural resources such as coal, natural gas or oil, has to include nuclear energy as a vital component of its energy basket to meet domestic demands. All this fitted well in the broader energy strategy of Japan that aimed at balancing energy security with sustainability to the environment. It was indeed inevitable that Japan would take up the nuclear energy option. In fact, the first reactor to have come online was back in the year 1966. This resulted in an overall reduction of dependence on oil to 50% over the years for Japan. Nuclear energy has been an asset to the country, but Fukushima or the 3/11 has impacted the Japanese nuclear energy industry immensely. While the immediate reaction resulted in a halt of nuclear energy production in the short term, the long-term consequences of the Fukushima are now unfolding in the last eight years and beyond. One can clearly see that Japan’s nuclear energy policy can be easily characterized into two broad phases: pre-Fukushima and post-Fukushima phase. Japan is taking a real hard look at the contribution of nuclear energy in its energy mix. It is noteworthy that in the pre- Fukushima era, the contribution of nuclear energy in generating the country’s electricity was close to 30%, which further added to the energy self-sufficiency of about 20%. However, post 3/11 it has been reduced to only 11%, currently stagnating at 10%. It is to be noted that in the post-Fukushima phase, the dependence on fossil fuels have increased to almost 89% since 2016. It is important to note that just one year before the Fukushima nuclear accident (2010), Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) resolved to increase energy self-sufficiency to 70% by 2030, for both energy security and CO2 emission reduction.

At present, only 9 out of the 54 nuclear reactors are in operation in Japan, and nearly half of the country’s nuclear reactors are in line for de-commissioning. Many reactors’ operation have been halted due to cleanups and safety review implementations. Thus, in the face of nuclear reactors going offline, it is yet to be seen as to how the gap in the suspension of nuclear energy based electricity production would be met. Additionally, what kind of influence it might render on the overall energy strategy of the country that aims at reducing GHG emissions has also to be seen. There are also two related issues that Japan is most likely to face regarding its nuclear energy policy: first, the rising electricity prices which have been peaking to 24% for households since 2014 and second, the cost of cleanup and incorporation of safety reviews that have been delayed already until 2020. Three utilities i.e., the Kyushu Electric Power Co, Kansai Electric Power, and the Shikoku Electric Power have extended their deadlines to implement the safety measures to be taken post-Fukushima accident. In response to this, the nuclear regulator (NRA Japan) has decided to not extend their license of operation unless and until the measures are fully incorporated. It is evident that both at the macro and the micro level, nuclear energy’s contribution to the country’s electricity and energy mix would decline both by accident as well as by design. The 3/11 has indeed resulted in a polarized debate with regard to nuclear energy in Japan. While for all practical purposes, nuclear energy may be a necessary evil, but public opposition combined with delays from within the nuclear industry would remain an obstacle to its growth in the immediate future.

In the long run, it is expected that the share of renewables in the energy mix would likely increase. For instance, alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power have come to occupy more space in the country’s energy policy even as their current contribution exceeds 15% of total power production in Japan. However, it is also evident that these sources of energy will take some time to replace fossil fuels significantly.

*Unless otherwise cited and stated- the data provided in the article has been mined from the Fortnightly Nuclear Security Newsletters published by CAPS. (Issues: Vol. 13 No. 05, 01 January 2019- Vol. 13 No. 05 16- June 2019)

*** The author is currently a research scholar at the Center for US, Canadian and Latin American Studies at School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***