Reversing earlier remarks, Japan halts new nuclear reactor construction and is poised to emphasise alternative energy

Publish date: May 11, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

Japan’s Prime Minster Naoto Kan announced Tuesday that his country will give up on plans to build new nuclear reactors against the background of the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi plant, and said his country needed to “start from scratch” in creating a new energy policy.

Bellona’s nuclear  physicist Nils Bøhmer said the decision, dramatic as it is, will require a new focus on alternative energy for the government.

Bøhmer said the decision that comes at the right time not only because of the Fukushima accident, but because in 2010, for the first time, worldwide the cumulated installed capacity of various sources of renewable energy outpaced the installed capacity for nuclear power, according to a report he cited from the the Worldwatch Institute (download at right). Specifically, the installed capacity of wind turbines in 193 gigawatts; for biomass and waste-to-energy plants, it is 65 gigawatts, and solar power reached 381 gigawatts, overcoming the 375 gigawatt installed capacity of nuclear power prior to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

“Worldwide, renewables are booming, and we would do ourselves a favour if we left behind whatever notions there are about a nuclear renaissance and make it a renewable renaissance,” said Bøhmer. “This is the perfect time for Japan to incorporate renweables and phases out nuclear power.”

Tuesday’s decision will mean the abandonment of a plan that the Kan government released last year to build 14 nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply to 50 percent. Japan currently has 54 reactors that before the earthquake produced 30 percent of its electricity. 

The plant has been leaking radiation since the 11 March earthquake and subsequent tsunami damaged cooling systems to the reactors. TEPCO has asked for government help to compensate those affected. Yet a new leak of highly contaminated water was found at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor No 3 similar to that which plauged reactor No 2.That leak was plugged with a polymer and glass.

A TEPCO spokesman told reporters that a worker had found water coming into one of the pits of the No.3 reactor by the ocean. The spokesman said the utility could not confirm whether water was actually leaking into the sea nearby and was conducting tests, Reuters reported.

More than 80,000 local residents living within a 20 kilometer radius of the plant have been evacuated from their homes.

Japan yesterday allowed some 100 residents of evacuated areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to briefly revisit their homes for the first time since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March caused the nuclear accident at the plant, and collect what belonging they could in plastic bags, the Associated Press reported.

Nuclear plants currently supply about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity.

Addressing a news conference, Kan described nuclear power as a “major pillar” of Japanese society, along with fossil fuels. But he said other forms of energy would also be key in the future.

“The current basic energy policy envisages that over 50 percent of total electricity supply will come from nuclear power while more than 20 percent will come from renewable power in 2030,” he said.

“But that basic plan needs to be reviewed now from scratch after this big incident,” Kan told reporters. “Better safety must be ensured in nuclear power while renewables need to be promoted.”

He said greater focus would also be placed on ways of conserving energy, turning Japan into an “energy-saving society.”

Bøhmer welcomed Kan’s remarks and said Japanese consumers could see big savings at a critical time.

“Instead of pouring the money that had been earmarked for building 14 new reactors, Japan can put that money into research and installation of more alternative energy,” he said.

“Alternative energy is cheaper – this could represent an important boost for the development of alternative worldwide,” Bøhmer added.

Kan’s announcement Tuesday came just days after he said Japan remained committed to nuclear power. His apparent climb-down may be driven partly by public opinion, which has significantly soured on nuclear power since the Fukushima accident.

Tokyo continues to see weekly demonstraitions several thousand strong, urging the government to abandon nuclear power.

Even before the announcement, the disaster had dampened the nuclear industry’s hopes for a worldwide revival of reactor building. With demand for electricity and concerns about global warming both growing, the industry had projected rapid expansion.

But Japan’s nuclear crisis had already caused several countries to become skittish about nuclear power. In the very first weeks after the start of the crisis at Fukushima, Germany, for instance, declared a temporary сlosedown and extensive testing of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants and suspended earlier plans to extend the operational lifetimes of old reactors beyond their design-basis service terms.

TEPCO has said that it may take up to nine months to achieve a cold shut-down at the nuclear plant, which workers are struggling to stabilize, Japan Today said.

Cooling systems were knocked out during the March 11 quake and tsunami, causing fuel rods and spent nuclear fuel pools to overheat. There were subsequently explosions at four reactors operating at the time of the earthquake.

Engineers continue to pump water into the reactors to cool them as they work to restore the damaged cooling systems.

Reports indicate that Fukushima Daiichi has released a tenth of the radiation released by the Chernobyl explosion, but that figure could rise.