Japan right to rethink nuclear phase-out
Hooman Peimani says the goal, made after Fukushima, was unrealistic
The growing tension between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea has given the administration of Yoshihiko Noda an opportunity to gradually modify a plan to phase out the Japanese nuclear sector by 2040.
This month, the Japanese government announced its phase-out decision, following through on an idea inherited from Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan. However, last week, a cabinet resolution undermined that objective by saying that the government would "take into consideration" the 2040 goal in deciding Japan's economic future in the post-Fukushima era.
Thus, as the Japanese people and the rest of the world have been preoccupied with worsening Sino-Japanese relations, Tokyo has practically abandoned the unrealistic 2040 goal imposed on it by the pressure of public opinion in a panicky reaction to the Fukushima accident.
Instead, the government now says Japan's energy policy will be developed "with flexibility, based on tireless verification and re-examination", an encrypted way of declaring the unfeasibility of the phase-out goal, which is reflected in July's restarting of the No 3 and No 4 reactors at Japan's Oi nuclear power plant.
The goal was unachievable as it was based on two unrealistic assumptions.
One was tripling the energy produced by renewables to eventually compensate for the loss of nuclear energy. Prior to Fukushima, Japanese nuclear power plants generated about 27 per cent of the nation's electricity. This goal is unrealistic as, unlike nuclear energy, renewables (hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels and waste) are unsuitable to generating large-scale electricity due to their technological limits and high costs. Before the Fukushima disaster, they accounted for about 10 per cent of Japan's energy mix.
The other assumption was that the loss of nuclear energy could be compensated for by increasing imports of oil, gas and coal. Prior to Fukushima, fossil energy accounted for about 63 per cent of Japan's energy mix. But today, fossil fuels are being used to generate 90 per cent of Japan's electricity. Given that these are almost all imported, the increase has created a heavy financial burden for the economy and pushed up prices.
This burden has damaged Japan's economic recovery by increasing the production costs of its exports when the nation needs to lower these costs to increase exports.
The 2040 goal was also environmentally destructive. The current heavy consumption of fossil fuels has reversed Japan's impressive achievements in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to a large extent to its use of nuclear energy, which does not generate carbon dioxide. Before Fukushima, it had planned to cut emissions further by expanding the share of nuclear energy to 50 per cent.
As well, the planned increase in renewables would have raised the share of carbon-dioxide-emitting renewables (biofuels and waste). This would run counter to efforts needed to reduce emissions to mitigate global warming.
The 2040 goal was therefore financially and environmentally unsustainable. It would also have increased the Japanese government's vulnerability to political fluctuations in regions that supply its energy needs.
The government has seemingly bowed to the heavy weight of the realities: the phase-out plan would have damaged the Japanese economy and energy security.
Pressure from Japanese business groups - who have demanded the abandoning of the 2040 goal - has been a decisive factor in the change of plan, and came on top of the environmental and energy security considerations.
As Tadashi Okamura, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said after the government's announcement, the 2040 goal "was not a viable option in the first place".
Dr Hooman Peimani is head of the Energy Security Division and a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore