(Tokyo Shimbun: January 31, 2015 – p. 1)
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on Jan. 30 convened the first meeting of its Subcommittee on Long-term Energy Supply-demand Outlook under the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy. The law requires all nuclear reactors to be decommissioned after 40 years of their operations, but the ministry hopes to apply an exemption rule that allows reactors to operate for up to 60 years. Currently all nuclear power facilities have been suspended from operation. If the 40-year rule remains applicable in the future, the proportion of nuclear power in the total energy supply will be kept below 15%. But the government seeks to raise this ratio to around 20%. The move is contradictory to its basic energy plan that calls for lowering nuclear energy reliance as much as possible.
The approach to use the exemption rule to extend the life span of nuclear reactors may trigger safety concerns among the public. The basic energy plan, which the government endorsed in April, did not specify numerical targets for nuclear energy in the total energy supply. By summer, the subcommittee will set forth proportions of nuclear energy and renewable energy to be achieved by fiscal 2030.
The government revised nuclear energy legislation in 2012 to limit the operations of nuclear reactors to 40 years. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s No. 1 reactor at its Fukushima plant had been operating for more than 40 years when the facility was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami and triggered a meltdown in March 2011.
The ministry argues that it does not plan at this point to build new reactors. Even though many reactors are brought back to the grid, they will eventually go offline one after another over the course of time. It estimates that suppose the total power output, including thermal power, remains the same, the proportion of nuclear reactor will decline to around 15% in fiscal 2028, a roughly half from fiscal 2009. The number is projected to go down further by fiscal 2030.
But nuclear reactors can become operational for up to 60 years if they clear special safety inspections conducted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The Abe government favors keeping the use of nuclear energy as a main power source. The ministry plans to use the exemption rule to raise the proportion of nuclear energy in the total energy supply.
Almost all handouts the ministry distributed at the Jan. 30 meeting discussed the necessity of nuclear power, pointing to Japan’s growing reliance on natural gas and other fossil-based energy sources to generate electricity. On the other hand, efforts to increase the proportion of renewable energy were toned down. The government has stated in its renewable energy program that renewable energy should account for more than 21% of the total energy supply. But a ministry official explained that a higher reliance on renewable energy will simply cause the power rate to go up as well.
Takeo Kikkawa, a professor at Hitotsubashi University’s graduate school and a subcommittee member, waned of the shift in discussions toward pro-nuclear policy. “The government has said it will reduce nuclear reliance as much as possible and maximize the use of renewable energy,” he said. He added: “So it must source at least 30% from renewable energy and keep the proportion of nuclear energy at around 15%. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.”
“The Nuclear Regulatory Authority is not responsible for the safety of nuclear reactors,” said Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, who also serves as a member of the ministry’s Strategic Policy Committee under the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy. “Even though the government says nuclear reactors will become operational after clearing inspection criteria set by the nuclear watchdog, it is hard to win the public’s understanding.”