The shadow of the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima has long hung over Japan's nuclear energy sector, but new energy realities may be, at last, forcing a reset. Photo: AFP/TEPCO/JIJI Press

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told ministers on Thursday (July 14) that he wants nine working nuclear reactors generating energy this winter to prevent an expected power crunch. Relevant authorities fleshed out the plan further today.

Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Koichi Hagiuda said today that the country will work to operate up to nine nuclear reactors by winter, up from the five currently in operation, according to S&P Global. Those nine plants can cover roughly 10% of Japan’s power consumption, news reports said.

The ministry “will work steadily to proceed resuming operations at nuclear power plants with a basis assumption of assuring safety, as well as urging restarts of mothballed power plants to secure a maximum supply capacity,” Hagiuda told a Tokyo press conference today.

“While we do not have an overall breakdown of additional supply capacity for winter at present, we will work to operate up to nine [nuclear] reactors from the five reactors operating currently by reviewing nuclear power plants’ repairs and inspection schedules,” he said.

Japan, like other industrialized economies in Western Europe, is facing a looming energy crunch that could hit home hard this winter. The Ukraine war, related pledges to cut reliance on Russian energy imports and resultant soaring energy prices all signal energy security threats on the horizon.

Even so, nine reactors are a small fraction of the 54 reactors that Japan operated and generated 30% of national energy before the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck in 2011. That led to a plunge in trust in nuclear facilities and drove plant shutdowns in Japan and worldwide.

That makes Kishida’s nuclear step a big one. But amid today’s grim energy geoscape, he is not the only regional leader reaching out to push the nuclear restart button.

Promises, promises

South Korea’s newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol last week announced a major revival in nuclear power generation, reversing the policy of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. 

Like Japan, South Korea has a heavy industrial base and is a net energy importer. Seoul aims not only to upgrade the use of nuclear in its national energy mix but will also resume exporting atomic generation facilities.

Compared to Korea’s robust nuclear restart, Japan’s plan sounds initially more cautious. But when it comes to reaching public consensus on the issue, Japan is hobbled.

Signs from an anti-nuclear protest against the Japanese government in Tokyo. Photo: iStock

That’s a reflection of still-strong public concerns about the risk of nuclear accidents. Japan’s nuclear generation sector has been crippled since the 2011 disaster due to widespread fear and loathing.

Though the disaster is now more than a decade gone, the future of the country’s atomic power generation sector remains in question, witnessed in the fact that just five of 54 reactors have been revived since 2011.

Even Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, the late Shinzo Abe – an unabashedly pro-nuclear leader – was unable to muster the political heft necessary to restart nuclear on anything other than a minimalist scale.

The directive yesterday from Kishida, who took office in October 2021, was hardly his first comment on the issue.

In May, he told the Diet that his government would take “concrete steps” to restart idle reactors. On July 3, he said during a televised political discussion, “We’ll utilize nuclear power to the fullest extent possible.”

If he is to be taken at his word, that could mean a restart of mothballed facilities on a large scale.

According to non-profit information source Nippon.com, “Prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, 54 nuclear reactors were in operation in Japan, supplying approximately 30% of the country’s electric power.” 

But can Kishida be taken as his word?

Regulatory pushback, political fears

The plan outlined is hardly “to the fullest extent” given Japan’s still-extensive idle capacity. And given Kishida’s most recent directive, it is unclear what action, if any, followed his prior comments.

It is possible that the restart plans were deliberately only announced after the Diet’s Upper House elections, which took place on Sunday. Kishida’s leadership status was considerably cemented by his convincing win in that vote.

And there may be a shift underway in the previously inflexible public attitudes surrounding nuclear power.  

A poll taken by the Nikkei newspaper on March 28 this year found that 53% of Japanese are behind restarting reactors if their safety is ensured. That is a significant shift from just 44% who supported the idea in September 2021.

It is not clear whether the Ukraine War, which was ignited on February 24, was behind the shift in opinion, but Nobuo Tanaka, a former executive of the International Energy Agency, told media at the time of the poll findings, “There is a strong tailwind for nuclear power at this moment.”

Even so, the task of ensuring safety is massive. That is a job for the national regulator, and Japanese bureaucracies are not known for either speed or boldness.

Moreover, NIMBY (not in my backyard) is a real issue in Japanese politics. For example, local fears of booster components falling onto inhabited areas was the reason given when Japan decided against deploying an Aegis Ashore missile defense system in 2020.

Similarly, public safety concerns in areas that host nuclear reactors have proven a high political barrier to restarting operations. All these complications may explain why there is such opacity around the issue – clouds that have led to confusion even within professional circles.

White smoke rises from the Unit 3 reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the tsunami of 2011. Photo: Tepco / AFP

As per a June 2022 report from the World Nuclear Association: In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, “The first two reactors restarted in August and October 2015, with a further eight having restarted, since.”

That would equal ten reactors in operation – i.e. more than the nine that Kishida wants to have in operation by this winter.

According to Nippon.com, “As of June 2022, 10 nuclear reactors at six power stations have been given the go-ahead to restart in Japan, but only four reactors are currently in operation. Despite local governments agreeing to restart the reactors, some have not yet become operational due to the time required to implement safety measures and complete other construction work.”

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