The industry ministry has opened discussions for reviewing Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan, which defines a grand framework for how the country will consume, and cover the demand for, electric power, heat and other forms of energy.
Industry minister Hiroshige Seko has said the core part of the plan will remain basically unchanged. Minor adjustments alone, however, would simply not suffice under current circumstances.
The ongoing edition of the plan is questionable in many respects, including in the way it defines nuclear energy as a mainstay power source despite broad public opposition to restarts of nuclear reactors.
A big wave of change is occurring on a global scale. For example, there are moves, mostly in advanced industrialized nations, for pulling the plug on nuclear power. There is also a trend for moving from coal-fired thermal power generation, given that the Paris Agreement has now taken effect for fighting global warming. Renewable energy options, such as wind and solar power, are spreading rapidly.
Japan should also redraw the image of its future self. First and foremost, a phase-out of nuclear power should define the foundation of the country’s new future perspective.
While combining a nuclear phase-out with a fight against global warming won’t be an easy task, advances in energy-saving technologies and in renewable energy options have lowered the hurdles for pursuing both. There is a need to seek pathways for doing so, with due consideration given to cost performance and the stability of the energy supply.
False pledge to lower dependency on nuclear power
The current Strategic Energy Plan, which was approved by the Cabinet in 2014, contains one deceptive aspect.
In response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the plan included a passage saying that, “Japan will minimize its dependency on nuclear power,” but it also defined atomic energy as an “important base-load power source.”
The plan also explicitly stated that the government would “proceed with the restart of the nuclear power plants” in accordance with the country’s revised regulatory standards. And nuclear reactors across Japan are actually being brought back online.
The Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook, a document worked out by the industry ministry in 2015 on the basis of the energy plan, favors a return to nuclear power more openly. The document assumes that atomic energy will account for about 20 percent of Japan’s total power supply in fiscal 2030.
That figure translates to 30 or so active nuclear reactors. Restarting reactors that are currently available for restarts would not be enough to achieve that number, so there would also be a need to either extend the service lives of, or replace, many of the aging nuclear reactors.
But even experts with a neutral stance on nuclear power policy have criticized that assumption for being too unrealistic, because nuclear energy is falling out of favor with the times both in Japan and abroad following the Fukushima disaster. For example, the public has grown more skeptical about the use of nuclear power, and the costs of implementing required safety measures have soared.
The question of how to dispose of radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors remains unlikely to be solved any time soon in most of the countries that have such reactors, including Japan. Efforts are spreading, mostly in advanced nations, for seeking to scrap all, or a considerable part, of a national fleet of nuclear reactors.
The forthcoming edition of Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan should no longer define atomic energy as a mainstay source of power. Minimizing dependency on nuclear power should be designated a priority issue instead of being left as a hollow promise. Discussions should be made on what efforts are necessary for achieving that goal, and a road map should be presented in a concrete manner.
Phase out nuclear, fight global warming
Intensive power-saving efforts, combined with a substantial growth in renewable energy options, will represent a solution to the question of how to phase out nuclear power and fight global warming at the same time. It has been pointed out that such measures are costly and have other disadvantages, but possibilities have been opening up for them in recent years.
On the power-saving front, the mainstream approach in advanced nations lies in suppressing energy consumption while pursing economic growth at the same time. Technological innovation is taking place, including in the use of information technology for efficient control of devices and for adjustment of the power demand.
The government should use policy incentives and regulations to apply strong pressure on the private sector to take action, just like it did when Japan was getting over the oil crisis in the past.
On the front of renewable energy options, the current Strategic Energy Plan says that the government “has accelerated the introduction of renewable energy as far as possible.”
Solar power has indeed risen sharply in output over the past several years, but the growth of wind power has remained stalled. Renewable energy sources account for around 15 percent of Japan’s total power supply, far behind the corresponding figures for European nations.
There is an urgent need to remove obstacles to realize a more substantial spread of the use of renewable energy sources. For example, operation of facilities should be improved so that more electricity generated from renewable energy sources can be supplied to areas where power transmission lines are currently near capacity. Rules should also be set on how to divide burdens of payable expenses so it will become easier for concerned parties to make additional investments that are deemed necessary.
Wind and solar power have become drastically cheaper to generate in the rest of the world. They can now compete on an equal footing with thermal power and nuclear power in more and more corners of the globe.
Those forms of energy remain relatively expensive in Japan, so we should rack our brains to improve the efficiency of wind and solar power plants, across all stages from their installation to their operation.
The spread of renewable energy options has been helped by a system that allows the cost of power generation to be added on top of electricity charges. In future years, however, it will also become essential to design an institutional setup that helps suppress the burdens passed on to the public.
In the meantime, thermal power has risen sharply in supply to fill a hole left by nuclear power reactors, which went offline and have remained idle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
The output of thermal power should be reduced steadily in step with the expanding use of renewable energy.
The current Strategic Energy Plan defines coal-fired thermal power, which is cheap to generate, as another mainstay power source on par with nuclear energy. The private sector has an army of plans for building new coal-fired thermal plants.
But moves are taking place quickly overseas for lowering dependency on coal-fired thermal power, which is generated at the cost of particularly large carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas, which is friendlier to the environment, should be given priority when it comes to thermal power generation.
Eyes should be set on global trend
The proceeding of discussions for the ongoing review of the energy plan is also problematic.
Apart from having the matter discussed by an existing council, the industry ministry is also setting up a separate panel of experts for discussing long-term strategies. Scholars and senior corporate executives sit on the two bodies who are supportive of the current energy policy, whereas advocates of a departure from nuclear power and of intensive development of renewable energy options account for a mere handful of their members.
One could only doubt that such a lineup of members will enable substantial discussions. It would be indispensable to also include experts who are well-versed in overseas trends, matters of technology and issues of cost performance and approach the question from a broad array of angles.
Japan, a country with scanty natural resources, has placed emphasis on the stability of the energy supply. That was indeed a necessary viewpoint, but it also led Japan, in a sense, to fall into a state of sclerosis whereby the use of nuclear power became the central axis of the nation’s energy policy.
Renewable energy sources have already replaced thermal energy and nuclear energy as the leading destinations of global investments into the electric power sector.
Japan should quickly switch its energy policy instead of turning its back on the international trend.