The Fukushima nuclear disaster put Japan’s climate policy in a decade-long purgatory

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“Even the Japanese Photovoltaic Association and the Wind Association have nuclear in their respective power mix scenarios, in order to make the numbers work,” DeWit said. “Japan’s public finances are in dire straits and payroll taxes are rising as it is the fastest aging society in the world.” Any path to decarbonization, he added, will have to take these issues into account.

Japan has the capacity to go back to nuclear power if it wants to. There are 33 operational nuclear reactors across the country that are not in use, all awaiting the last call from local authorities to restart operation. They have been reluctant to give the green light, even to plants that have undergone extensive safety reviews.

“Japanese utilities with nuclear assets spent about 1.3 trillion yen [about $12 billion] on facility upgrades, just in the first three years after Fukushima,” said Yuriy Humber, managing director of Yuri Invest Research, an energy research firm in Tokyo. “Industry is now locked in a kind of Sisyphean game, adding more and more safety devices to factories. … And then it gets thrown out.”

Restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants seems a political, if not technical, impossibility at the moment, thanks to public opposition and an ambiguous response from the country’s leadership. And despite investment and growth in renewable energy, Japan still lacks the technology and capacity to fill the huge hole left by the move away from nuclear power.

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