Japan backtracks on 2040 nuclear phase out plan

ingressimage_fukushima-smoke.jpeg Photo: NTV Japan

Whether Japan would backpedal on the shutdown has been a topic of skeptical discussion since the watered-down phase out plan was announced last Friday, offering as it did several wide loopholes to allow large portions of Japan’s nuclear energy production industry to continue functioning decades beyond the 2040 deadline.

Doubts that Japan would turn off its nuclear spigot were cemented when the cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Wednesday it would only “take into consideration” the 2040 shut down goal, and formally endorsed merely a vague promise to “engage in debate with local governments and international society and to gain public understanding” in deciding Japan’s economic future in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Energy policy would be developed “with flexibility, based on tireless verification and re-examination,” the cabinet’s resolution read, according to the Japan Times.

“The Japanese government got caught between two fires – the public demanding to phase out nuclear power and big business that wants to continue the development of nuclear industry,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Russia’s Ecodefense, and an author of a the book “From Hiroshima to Fukushima,” told Bellona.

“At first they were on public’s side, and now this policy changed,” said Slivyak.

Business convinces government to abandon safety

A day earlier, according to the New York Times, the chairmen of Japan’s most prominent business associations, the national strategic council, called a rare joint news conference to demand that Noda abandon the 2040 goal, said the newspaper.

Of the five private experts on the council, three were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, chaired by Noda, the Japan Times, said.

The two who were present – Yasuchika Hasegawa, the chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and Nobuaki Koga, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation – both called for the nuclear exit strategy to be abandoned, reported the Japan Times. 

On Wednesday, the council praised the cabinet’s decision.

The 2040 nuclear shutdown deadline “was not a viable option in the first place,” Tadashi Okamura, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told a news conference.

Anti-nuke environmental hopes dashed

Many international anti-nuclear environmental groups had hailed Japan’s announcement – vague as it was – as an indication that the country was falling into line with a group of world powers, namely Germany, who have pledged to shut down their nuclear power plants within the next two decades in the wake of the Fukushima Daichii disaster that began March 11, 2011. 

Germany’s back out of nuclear power is set to come in 2022, with Switzerland following suit in 2034 and Belgium provisionally committing to similar deadlines. Even France, which is dependent on nuclear energy for 75 percent of its power, announced last Friday it would cut that dependence to 50 percent by 2025.

For it’s part, Italy voted in a hugely popular referendum last summer not to begin a nuclear power program.

“The strategy of the Japanese nuclear industry now is to wait until public anger calms down, when it can force the government back toward the development of nuclear power,” said Ecodefense’s Slivyak.

“Earlier mass protests [in Japan] forced government to begin the discussion on a phase-out, and now government is trying to slip away from it, but an angry public may push for another return to the discussion of a phase out,” he said.

2040 deadline only a ‘reference point’

Motohisa Furukawa, the national strategy minister, announced the original plan last week, releasing a document titled the “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy” that said Japan would seek to eliminate nuclear power within 28 years through greater reliance on renewable energy, conservation and the use of fossil fuels.

On Wednesday, he defended the cabinet’s omission of the 2040 deadline, saying the government had intended to use it only as a reference point.

“It is just a matter of decision-making, and there is no real change to content,” he said, according to the New York Times.

“Although Furukawa said ‘there is no real change to content’of policy on phasing out nuclear energy, it is clear that government decided to go for a compromise with business and nuclear industry and removed 2040 deadline from documents,” Slivyak.

Nuclear power provided about a third of the country’s electricity before the Fukushima accident, and Japan had planned to increase that to 50 percent. Currently only two of the country’s 50 functioning reactors are on line while the government addresses public concerns about safety.

New regulatory agency has industry promotion ties

Japan’s new regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, inaugurated Wednesday, was delayed for months by demands from opposition lawmakers for more independence and by criticism of the pro-nuclear background of some appointees.

The five-member agency is headed by nuclear physicist and Fukushima native Shunichi Tanaka, a former executive of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes nuclear energy.

Several investigations – including a damning independent parliamentary report –  have said collusion between regulators and the utility that ran Fukushima contributed to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Charles Digges