Nuclear policy draft indicates shift in Japan’s energy policy

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Kansai Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power plant in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture

The government has concluded that nuclear power generation is necessary to achieve a stable electricity supply and a decarbonized society in the long term, according to a draft of the nation’s new nuclear policy.

The current policy states that Japan “will reduce its dependence on nuclear power as much as possible.” That policy has shifted according to the draft presented by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry on Monday.

The new policy would effectively allow nuclear power plants to operate beyond the current limit of 60 years and would also lead to the development of next-generation nuclear power plants.

The draft was presented to the ministry’s Nuclear Energy Subcommittee, which is discussing the policy before a final decision is made.

At a subcommittee meeting on Monday, Fukui Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto, a member of the committee, demanded a review of the current Strategic Energy Plan that was approved by the Cabinet last year.

Fukui Prefecture has eight nuclear power plants. Sugimoto reiterated calls for the effective use of nuclear power.

“This is a debate that has divided national opinion and will require deliberation,” a committee member said, expressing caution.

Many of the about 20 committee members expressed understanding regarding the policy shift.

To strengthen the research and development of next-generation nuclear power plants, the draft calls for the establishment of a “control tower” comprising the government, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and companies.

Next-generation nuclear generators are likely to be so-called light-water reactors with improved safety and high-temperature gas reactors that can also produce hydrogen with the heat generated during power generation. The economic ministry’s draft states that the development and construction of next-generation nuclear power plants will take place when old nuclear plants are scheduled for decommissioning.

At the committee meeting, Kyoto University Prof. Ken Nakajima demanded: “a careful explanation regarding whether the draft is consistent with the policy of reducing ‘dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible.’”

However, a senior ministry official said the draft is “realistic and restrained” out of consideration for persistent public opposition to nuclear power.

Some officials hailed the fact that the draft included facility replacement, saying it “takes us one step closer” toward expanding the use of nuclear energy.

The government’s nuclear policy has maintained a cautious stance since the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

However, the ministry has proposed a policy that effectively allows facilities to operate for more than 60 years, as the next-generation replacements of plants scheduled for decommissioning will not be completed until the 2030s at the earliest.

The policy is also aimed at making it easier for electric power companies to invest in nuclear power projects.

Repeated energy crunches over summer and winter have made it necessary to secure a stable power supply, prompting the policy shift. There have also been calls to use nuclear power to help realize a decarbonized society.

Thermal power generation accounted for 70% of domestic electricity generation in fiscal 2021. As an energy source that does not emit carbon dioxide, nuclear power generation is likely to expand going forward.