Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked global energy markets and caused rising fuel prices. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for more nuclear reactors to be restarted. For the first time since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a slim majority of Japanese citizens favor restarting the country’s nuclear reactors.
After the Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down its nuclear power plants due to safety concerns. Japan’s energy self-sufficiency rate has since plummeted, leaving the country vulnerable to price volatility in global energy markets. But calling for nuclear reactors to be restarted is not the answer to the current energy crisis.
Nuclear power plants are currently in the process of being restarted. To be restarted, they have to undergo a time-consuming refurbishment process and pass safety screenings by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).
New safety standards introduced in 2013 aim to minimize risk as much as possible. But these standards are aimed more toward the causes of the Fukushima nuclear accident rather than new threats, such as cyber security and climate change.
New mandatory tsunami protection walls are required to exceed the largest ever recorded tsunami. But changes in the global climate are causing sea levels to rise, increasing the potential for larger tsunamis to damage the nuclear power plants along Japan’s coasts.
By January 2022, 17 out of Japan’s 35 available nuclear reactors were approved to be restarted by the NRA, but not all were able to produce electricity due to ongoing refurbishment and maintenance.
The share of electricity produced by nuclear power plants dropped to just 4% in 2020 after reaching 6% in 2018. This is a far cry from the envisaged 20-22% outlined in the government’s Strategic Energy Plan.
Due to construction times of at least one decade, building new nuclear power plants is not a solution to the immediate energy challenge either.
Another hurdle for restarting nuclear reactors stems from safety related class action lawsuits and court rulings against restarts, such as the recent case concerning Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant.
Such rulings, even if eventually overturned by a higher court, present a considerable challenge to electric utilities which are already facing exploding costs for refurbishing nuclear power plants in line with new safety standards.
As early as 2016, it became apparent that Japan’s electric utilities were unwilling to make the necessary investments to refurbish enough nuclear reactors to meet the government’s energy policy targets.
To make matters worse, the possibility of a court ruling putting an end to restart attempts threatens the return on these massive investments. Over the decade since the Fukushima disaster, there have not been enough restart applications submitted in order to achieve government targets.
This is a difficult position for the Fumio Kishida government, as pro-nuclear actors in Japan are losing the necessary political power to implement nuclear policy. Speeding up the restart process would come at the expense of nuclear safety and increase the risk of another nuclear accident occurring.
Any interference with court rulings against the reopening of nuclear reactors would undermine judicial independence, which would be inappropriate for a democratic country. Passing on high refurbishment costs to consumers through higher electricity prices would be unpopular with the electorate and would not resolve the problem of already high prices.
Japan’s energy policy aims to achieve “3E+S” — energy security, environmental friendliness and economic efficiency based on the premise of safety. For this purpose, the government plans to continue to use nuclear power while increasing renewable energy production.
The government also plans to utilize carbon capture and storage (CCUS) technology and increase the use of hydrogen and ammonia to decarbonize thermal power generation. Since hydrogen and ammonia are energy carriers, not energy sources, the energy needed to produce them will have to come from other sources.
To contribute to the goal of decarbonizing Japan’s energy sector they will have to be produced using low-carbon energy sources.
Nuclear power has long been Japan’s main low-carbon energy source and is now facing a multitude of challenges that the Kishida government is partly unable and partly unwilling to address. As a result, Japan will retain nuclear power but at a much lower level than envisaged by the government.
This leaves renewable energy and CCUS as the best options to pursue. Renewable energy expansion is not without its challenges, such as balancing out intermittent energy generation with storage solutions and improving Japan’s fragmented electricity grid. And CCUS is not yet a market-ready technology.
Calling for nuclear reactors to be restarted is futile. It is time for the government to take immediate action to expand renewables and push the development of CCUS technologies. This will allow Japan to increase its energy independence as soon as possible while keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.
Florentine Koppenborg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich.
This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.