A file photo shows the No. 1 (R) and No. 2 reactor of Takahama nuclear power station operated by Kansai Electric power in Takahama Town Fukui prefecture on March 13, 2020. Fukui Prefectural Governor Tatsuji Sugimoto announced said that the prefectural government had agreed the restart of No. 3 reactor at the Mihama nuclear power station and the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Takahama plant during a press conference on April 28, 2021. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun / Mami Nagaoki

Three dormant, 40-year-old Japanese nuclear reactors were approved to resume operations on Wednesday, overturning policies adopted after the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe with major ramifications for the energy sector.

The move, which was widely reported by Japanese media, comes after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced last week that Japan would slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 46% from 2013 levels by 2030.

That was a massive increase over the 26% cut Japan had announced in 2015 and is also a far closer horizon than the “carbon neutral by 2050” goal Suga set last year, which had drawn criticism as being too little, too late from the world’s fifth-largest emitter.

More broadly, Wednesday’s development signals what many had considered inevitable: The restart of dormant elements of Japan’s nuclear energy program a decade after the Fukushima disaster forced Tokyo to hit the kill switch.

Governor Tatsujui Sugimoto of Fukui Prefecture, some 300 kilometers west of Tokyo, on Wednesday approved the restart of the Kansai Electric Power reactor Units 1 and 2 at the Takahama nuclear power plant and Unit 3 at the utility’s Mihama plant, news reports stated.

His move was hardly made in a political vacuum. Indeed, the restart had been long in progress.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority gave approval in 2016 for the three units to operate beyond the 40-year limit, but a series of local political consents were required. All were delivered this year.

The mayors of Mihama and Takahama gave their thumbs up in February. Subsequently, Fukui’s prefectural assembly gave the decision the nod last Friday. Tokyo appeared to have given Sugimoto the final prod.

On Tuesday, Industry Minister Hiroshii Kajiyama told Sugimoto that Japan would continue to use atomic energy “sustainably into the future,” and promised some 2.5 billion yen (US$23.1 million) in grants to restart reactors older than four decades.  

The various political hoops that had to be jumped through to reach Wednesday’s decision were erected to appease the public distrust of nuclear energy that soared after 2011. And there is going to be more opposition going forward.

“There is definitely going to be pushback,” Tosh Minohara of the Graduate School of Law at Kobe University told Asia Times. “But Japan really strengthened regulations after Fukushima and Japanese people are willing to accept, in the end, what the government tells them – so now it is about nudging the public to accept it.”

People take part in an anti-nuclear protest outside Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) headquarters in Tokyo on March 11, 2021, on the 10th anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake which triggered a tsunami and nuclear disaster. Photo: AFP/ Philip Fong

In terms of regulations adopted after 2011, reactor age was a key issue and remains central to Japan’s nuclear dilemma.

Energy-hungry Japan – which has virtually no native supplies of oil or gas, but needs ample power to feed its vast manufacturing base – operated nuclear 54 reactors before the catastrophe struck. In crisis-control mode in the wake of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster, Tokyo shut down reactors across the country.

Nuclear power is critical for a manufacturing economy like Japan, as atomic plants operate at higher capacity factors than either renewable energy sources or fossil fuels.

According to a 2018 paper “Why nuclear power must be part of the energy solution,” published by Yale School of the Environment, “Capacity factor is a measure of what percentage of the time a power plant actually produces energy. It’s a problem for all intermittent energy sources. The sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind always blow, nor water always fall through the turbines of a dam.”

Since the shutdown, only nine Japanese nuclear plants have been restarted, 20 were marked for decommissioning, plans for new plants were frozen and a 40-year maximum lifespan was introduced for reactors. By 2030, almost half the national reactor portfolio will be more than four decades old.

Wednesday’s decision provides a precedent to bounce the “40-year” hurdle.

An aerial photo shows the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima Prefecture, on April 7, 2021. The space for contaminated water tanks is running out. Photo: AFP/Koji Ito/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Political pressures ahead

Given the various constraints he faces, Suga appears to have lined his ducks up adroitly.

His emissions cut vow provided a sop to environmentalists at a time when his government is facing global flak after it announced its decision to release irradiated coolant water from Fukushima into the Pacific.

But the pledge, paradoxically, requires an increase in nuclear energy. The country will need to acquire 20% of its electricity from atomic sources going forward, according to assessments in Japanese media. That is a massive increase over the current situation.

According to the International Energy Agency’s 2021 country report on Japan – which was produced prior to Suga’s recent pledge, and was based on official green-growth trajectories published in December 2020 – “Nuclear energy is expected to increase to at least 11% of total primary energy supply by 2030, up from 4% in 2019.”

Prior to 2011, nuclear had accounted for 15% of Japan’s energy mix, the IEA noted. The report added that the 2030 emissions target would be achievable only if the number of operational reactors increases from the current nine to at least 30.

Now, if Japanese media are correct in their assessments, Suga’s more recent emissions pledge will require the country to expand its nuclear power sector to beyond pre-2011 levels.

This all presents a raft of issues that will need to be finessed by the country’s politicians and its powerful atomic lobby, the so-called “Nuclear Village.” There is widespread public skepticism, and nuclear power plant operators around the country faced thousands of lawsuits after the events of 2011.

“There are elections in the Fall so the LDP will be wary that this becomes an election issue,” Minohara said. “The opposition are anti-nuclear, so Suga has to tread cautiously.”

Indeed, several atomic controversies are current.

A major issue hangs over Tokyo Electric’s central Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, with seven stalled reactors. Hopes for a restart of the plant, or parts of it, have recently been dashed by reports that it is vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Safety from terrorism was yet another of the requirements adopted post-Fukushima. This security regulation is presenting problems for the new Genkai nuclear plant, which was expected to come online in 2022.

And Kansai Electric – the utility that had the thumbs up to restart some reactors on Wednesday – is now overshadowed by a bribery scandal.

South Korea’s first nuclear plant, the Wolsong 1 reactor and nuclear plant, at Wolsong-Myeong. Photo: AFP/Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto

Beyond Japanese shores

However the matter is handled politically – and though Suga may not survive as prime minister, his party’s powerful position in the Diet is highly unlikely to be upset in the next general election that must be held by October – Japan looks to be back in the nuclear power game.

What is less clear is whether the precedent set by Tokyo will be followed by democratic neighbors who drastically cut back on their own nuclear power after watching Fukushima melt.

The same political nettle Japan grasped Wednesday is also faced by South Korea and Taiwan. But while Suga’s LDP is pro-nuclear, administrations in Seoul and Taipei are not.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is an anti-nuclear politician, so no near-term restart is likely – particularly at a time when Koreans are incensed by Tokyo’s Fukushima water release plan.

Moon’s single term in office expires next March. What energy policies his successor will follow remain to be seen, but South Korea faces a similar problem to Japan – a lack of oil or gas and a manufacturing base that requires energy. The country’s retreat from nuclear has led to a new reliance on coal plants, adding considerably to the smog the country already suffers from China.

Taiwan in also a net energy importer, and though it suffered blackouts last year, nuclear power is a political football. While a 2018 referendum voted to retain atomic energy, Taipei ruled out extensions of current plants’ life cycles and also halted work on new plants. Taiwan also faces a problem similar to Japan: Its reactors are built on seismic fault lines.

On March 11, 2011, tsunamis rolled over the sea walls towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. On Wednesday, Japan signaled its nuclear energy industry’s move out from under Fukushima’s shadow. Photo: AFP/TEPCO/JIJI Press

While politicians, industrialists and energy pros work out their power futures, a massive competitor to the manufacturing sectors overseen by governments in Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo is looming over a close horizon.

That competitor, in Beijing, does not need to accommodate the kind of public sensitivities that constrain the three democracies.

According to its latest five-year plan, the country plans to more than double the amount of nuclear power it now generates by 2025. That additional wattage of power is equivalent to approximately 20 new reactors.