Japan offers vague, weak nuclear exit by 2040 that could have reactors chugging decades beyond deadline

ingressimage_fukushima-daiichi-monday.jpeg Photo: NTV Japan

Japan on Sunday said it would not stop work on several planned reactors, something that would allow these nuclear reactors that are in various stages of completion to operate decades beyond Friday’s vaguely proposed 2040 shutdown deadline, casting long shadows of doubt on whether the nation would follow through on the plan to actually phase out nuclear power.

A source with close ties to the Japanese nuclear industry told Bellona Sunday by email that the government did not consider the ban on nuclear power beyond 2040 to apply to seven reactors that are still under construction, and that the final decision would lie with the newly constituted nuclear regulatory committee.

Additionally, plans on whether the majority of Japan’s 50 reactors that were idled following would be restarted will be left in the hands of the new regulatory body – which, because of its connection to the failures of the old, threatens to cause yet another lapse in the public’s trust in the nuclear industry in Japan.

Yukio Edano, the minister for economy, trade and industry, on Saturday seemed to strengthen the government’s support for allowing plants under construction to come online, telling Asahi Shimbun that, “[The government] is not considering changing plans regarding the construction of reactors that have already been approved.”

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced plans Friday that ideally would seek to phase out nuclear power through the 2030’s with full shutdown coming in 2040 – which is a historic shift for a country that has long staked its future on atomic power, and was, prior to the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, held up as a world leader and example of how to achieve that.

The new phase out policy puts a 40-year lifespan on all of Japan’s existing nuclear reactors, which – given the age of Japan’s current nuclear fleet – is how the 2030s phase out period was arrived at. 

To replace the hole left by nuclear power, Japan plans to increase its use of renewable energy to cover 30 percent of its emissions, while still relying on traditional sources like oil and coal for the bulk of its energy consumption.

Prime Minister Noda said the new policy was just the beginning of a long and difficult process.

“We are only at the starting line,” Noda said, according to agencies. “Now we are going to begin an extremely difficult challenge. No matter how difficult it is, we can no longer put it off.”

The remarks are encouraging to other nations that themselves may be sitting on the fence about whether to procede with their own nuclear industries, or scrap them in favor of renewable sources.

The big maybe

But Edano’s plan of grandfathering in five reactors that are, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association, currently under construction in Japan would allow these new reactors to run for 40 years, plus a possible addition 20 should they be granted operation lifespan extensions.

The government also said currently operating reactors would be closed after life spans of 40 years run out, but said that exemptions could be granted, suggesting that the 2040 deadline was flexible ­– thereby torpedoing any firm date for a nuclear free Japan.

Though the long-awaited energy policy introduced Friday was named the “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy” by its authors, it defers the expected transition away from nuclear power by at least a decade.

In other words, a total, complete shutdown of Japan’s nuclear reactors by 2040 – unlike hard pledges made by Germany, which will shutter its plants by 2022, and other EU countries like Switzerland and Belgium, which plan to follow suit in the next 20 years in the wake of the Fukushima crisis – is at best a maybe.

The Japanese government has also complained that the cost of an across the board, sweeping shut down would cost some $56 billion, reports said. Four of Japans major energy companies would be forced to dissolve. The extended deadline gives the country’s current reactors, which are mostly all offline awaiting safety checks, sufficient time to live out their lifespan, and energy companies sufficient time to figure out what to do next. 

Continued struggles with the nuclear needle

The Japanese government had been considering several options: whether to close all the plants over time or to maintain enough reactors to provide a smaller but still substantial percentage of the country’s electricity needs. The plan tabled Friday – and Edano’s comments over the weekend – seem to favor the later.

Before the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan depended on its reactors for about 30 percent of its electricity and had planned to raise that share to more than 50 percent by 2030.

The new shutdown scheme faces strong opposition from businesses. But many Japanese, while acknowledging the economic upheaval the shut down could cause, have expressed hope that the country will phase out nuclear energy within two decades ­– and Japan’s new and vocal antinuclear movement has pressed for even quicker action.

Smoke and mirrors with numbers mean political not ecological gains

Yet even those who favor a phase-out have blasted the strategy announced Friday as too vague and protracted.

“It’s trickery with words and numbers,” Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a research group based in Tokyo, told the Japan Times. “The zero reliance number might be symbolic politically, but in reality, it holds little meaning.”

The German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” wrote, “The Japanese nuclear lobby is just buying time until the uproar caused by the nuclear meltdown has subsided before it convinces the government to revise its decision.”

Government still pushing to reactivate idled reactors

With the new energy plan seemingly cemented, political focused on building consensus for reopening the vast majority of the country’s reactors that were pulled off the grid after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster – and amid mass public opposition to restarts until better safety regulations were in place.

Two of those reactors at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant in central Japan were, in fact, restarted in June, in order to avert what the government signaled was a coming energy shortage. Later reports, however, found that it had not been necessary to get the plants up and running again. The Japanese public was angry when it got word of the report.

“People are now questioning whether it is necessary for the other reactors go back on at all and how that will be sold to them,” Alexandra Sakaki, a Japan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutche Welle.

In announcing the new energy plan on Friday, Motohisa Furukawa, the minister of state for national policy, said there was no change to the government’s quest to restart those idled reactors. And though he said no new reactors would be built from scratch, the reactors under construction could very well go online, AFP reported.

The construction of the five reactors was suspended after Fukushima crisis, but Edano added on Saturday according to reports, that, “We don’t intend to withdraw the permission that has already been given by the ministry.”

Edano did add, however, that the start-up of the reactors would be subject to approval by the newly created nuclear oversight committee.

New nuclear regulators in Japan already under fire

A scathing parliamentary report on the Fukushima crisis released in June laid the lion’s share of the blame on the doorstep not of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake or ensuing 10-meter tsunami that engulfed Fukushima and killed its back-up coolant systems, but on regulatory agencies’ “insular attitude of ignoring international safety standards.”

The report further insisted the disaster “could and should have been foreseen and prevented” and its effects “mitigated by a more effective human response.”

In an effort to regain public trust in the wake of the report, the Japanese government scrapped its former nuclear oversight agency and created a new one. 

But even that plan is already taking bullets because the new regulatory agency’s head is Shunichi Tanaka, whose former portfolio included leading a government commission tasked with building a stronger nuclear industry, raising red flags that the new regulators will be as slovenly as the old – and hardly lead to the tighter independent nuclear regulation that Bellona’s nuclear physicist and general manager, Nils Bøhmer, has repeatedly insisted Tokyo needs.

That such a traditional nuclear industry booster as Tanaka would bear the decision as whether to bring the seven nuclear reactors still under construction online is a worrying sign that the idea of a total phase out may not, in fact, be a serious consideration for the Japanese government after all.

Charles Digges