Author: Florentine Koppenborg, Technical University of Munich
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked global energy markets and caused fuel prices to rise. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for more nuclear reactors to be restarted. For the first time since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, a slight majority of Japanese citizens are in favor of restarting the country’s nuclear reactors.
After the Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down its nuclear power plants for safety reasons. Japan’s energy self-sufficiency rate has since fallen, leaving the country vulnerable to price volatility in global energy markets. But asking for the restart of nuclear reactors is not the answer to the current energy crisis.
Nuclear power plants are currently being restarted. To be restarted, they must undergo a lengthy refurbishment process and pass security checks by Japan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (RNA).
The new safety standards introduced in 2013 aim to minimize risks as much as possible. But these standards are more aimed at the causes of the Fukushima nuclear accident than at new threats, such as cybersecurity and climate change. New mandatory tsunami protection walls are needed to outrun the largest tsunami on record. But changes in the global climate are causing sea levels to rise, increasing the potential for larger tsunamis damage nuclear power plants along the Japanese coast.
As of January 2022, 17 of Japan’s available 35 nuclear reactors had been approved for restart by the NRA, but not all of them were able to generate electricity due to ongoing renovation and maintenance. The share of electricity produced by nuclear power plants fell to just 4% in 2020 after reaching 6% in 2018. This is far from the 20 to 22% envisaged in the government report. Strategic Energy Plan.
Due to construction delays of at least a decade, building new nuclear power plants is also not a solution to the immediate energy challenge.
Another obstacle to restarting nuclear reactors stems from safety-related class action lawsuits and court rulings against restarts, such as the recent Case regarding Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari nuclear power plant. Such decisions, even if ultimately overturned by a higher court, represent a significant challenge for electric utilities that already face exploding costs for the refurbishment of nuclear power plants according to the new safety standards.
As early as 2016, it became apparent that Japanese power utilities were unwilling to make the necessary investments to refurbish enough nuclear reactors to meet the government’s energy policy goals. To make matters worse, the possibility of a court decision putting an end to restart attempts threatens the profitability of these massive investments. In the decade since the Fukushima disaster, there have not been enough restart applications submitted to meet government targets.
This is a difficult position for Kishida’s government, as pro-nuclear actors in Japan are losing the political power needed to implement nuclear policy. Accelerating the restart process would be detrimental to nuclear safety and increase the risk of another nuclear accident occurring.
Any interference in court decisions against the reopening of nuclear reactors would undermine judicial independence, which would be inappropriate for a democratic country. Passing on high renovation costs to consumers through higher electricity prices would be unpopular with the electorate and would not solve the problem of already high prices.
Japan’s energy policy aims to achieve ‘3E+S“— energy security, respect for the environment and economic efficiency on the basis of security. To this end, the government plans to continue using nuclear energy while increasing the production of renewable energy.
The government also plans to use carbon capture and storage (CCUS) technology and increase the use of hydrogen and ammonia to decarbonize thermal power generation. Since hydrogen and ammonia are energy carriers and not energy sources, the energy needed to produce them will have to come from other sources. To contribute to the goal of decarbonizing the Japanese energy sector, they will have to be produced from low-carbon energy sources.
Nuclear power has long been Japan’s main low-carbon energy source and now faces a host of challenges that Kishida’s government is partly unable and partly unwilling to address. As a result, Japan will retain nuclear power, but at a level far below that envisaged by the government.
That leaves renewables and CCUS as the best options to pursue. The expansion of renewables is not without challenges, such as balancing intermittent power generation with storage solutions and improving Japan’s fragmented power grid. And CCUS is not yet a ready-to-market technology.
Calling for the restart of nuclear reactors is futile. It is time for the government to take immediate action to develop renewable energy and push the development of CCUS technologies. This will allow Japan to increase its energy independence as soon as possible while maintaining low greenhouse gas emissions.
Florentine Koppenborg is a postdoctoral fellow at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich.