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Editorial: Voters should keep Fukushima disaster in mind on energy policy

Japan’s energy policy is at a crossroads.


The campaign platforms of all political parties for the Oct. 31 Lower House election agree that more renewable energy sources should be introduced.


They differ in their stances on nuclear power, but statements remain ambiguous on certain individual issues, presumably out of consideration for the parties’ respective support bases.


The parties should make their stances on nuclear power clearer through debate and present more concrete proposals on the issue, including numerical targets, in going to the people.


The country’s energy policy was affected substantially by the greenhouse gas reduction goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, which was set forth by former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last year and has since been written explicitly in a law.


The Cabinet on Oct. 22 approved the government’s new Strategic Energy Plan, which contains an energy mix target for fiscal 2030, for realizing a carbon-free society in 2050.


It set the goal of having renewables account for somewhere between 36 and 38 percent of Japan’s total power supply, a ratio significantly higher than what it currently is. The plan defines renewables as a mainstay energy source, which it says should be given foremost priority.


The target ratio for nuclear power was set unchanged at somewhere between 20 and 22 percent. It does not, however, appear realistic to achieve that goal.


Hitting that target would require having Japan’s fleet of 27 nuclear reactors–except those for which safety screening for restarts have not been requested–operating at a high utilization rate.


Those in that fleet that have yet to be approved for restarts should pass a safety screening under the new, tightened regulation standards. Those in the fleet that have yet to be restarted should obtain the understanding of the hosting communities.


The government has cited the low cost as one of the reasons for continuing to rely on nuclear power, but that rationale is being challenged. Simulations presented by the industry ministry in August say that, in 2030, photovoltaic power will be cheaper to generate than nuclear power.


Japan’s nuclear power policy involves another inconsistency.


During September’s race to elect the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Taro Kono, a longtime advocate of a nuclear phaseout, sparked controversy by openly arguing that Japan should “pull the plug as soon as possible” on its nuclear fuel recycling program, which seeks to recover plutonium from spent fuel and use it to generate power.


But the plan for that process has failed, not the least because the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor, which was supposed to play a central role in the program, has faced a setback. Successive administrations, however, have turned a blind eye to the impasse.


The LDP says in its platform for the coming election that it will press ahead with restarts of nuclear reactors to ensure sustained use of atomic energy. But the pledge remains equivocal on whether new reactors should be built and whether old ones should be replaced.


“We will discuss the matter thoroughly to formulate our policy,” LDP President Fumio Kishida, who doubles as prime minister, said in answering a question during a debate between party leaders.


The LDP says, in the meantime, that it will aggressively boost investments in a new type of compact nuclear reactor.


The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the leading opposition party, says a society that does not depend on atomic energy should be realized as soon as possible. The CDP opposes building new reactors, but its election pledge says nothing about restarting existing ones.


CDP leader Yukio Edano said nuclear reactors should not be allowed to go online unless their safety has been confirmed and approval of their hosting communities has been obtained.


When we think about energy policy, we should never forget about the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).


No prospect is yet in sight for rebuilding the livelihoods destroyed by the tragedy and for cleaning up after the disaster. TEPCO was found to have committed a number of irregularities at another of its nuclear plants, although the utility had experienced one of the worst nuclear disasters to date.


Ten years ago, many members of the public must have been so fearful of radiation, so eager to save electricity and so serious in thinking about the future of electric power.


We should keep that in mind when we are casting our ballots.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 24

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