Editorial: Japanese government halfhearted in reducing nation’s dependence on nuclear energy

At his first press conference of the new year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out the nation’s basic energy policy, saying, “We will reduce our dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible, while promoting the whole range of energy sources.”

But how much does the government intend to reduce this dependence? And is this target acceptable to the people of Japan? The government’s attitude will be closely watched this year, when the process of restarting the nuclear power plants is likely to be accelerated.

Electric power companies have submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), seeking safety assessments on whether 16 reactors at nine of the nation’s nuclear power plants meet the new regulatory standards. The first results to be announced will concern reactor 3 at the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture.

Initially, the Shikoku Electric Power Company eyed the possibility of resuming operations at the plant within 2013. But the NRA’s assessment was not issued before the end of the year. The company is hoping to put the plant back on line in the coming spring, but this outcome is uncertain.

Some members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) want to see the assessment process move forward more quickly, apparently influenced by the growing impatience of the electric power companies. This, however, is tantamount to political pressure to resume operations. When the Democratic Party of Japan held the reins of government, it was the LDP that called for establishing a strongly independent regulatory body.

The general public remains firmly opposed to restarting these nuclear facilities. It is only natural that the NRA is proceeding with care.

In the basic energy policy, which will be decided at a Cabinet meeting soon, the government is expected to describe nuclear power as a key energy source and state that it will seek to resume operations at the nation’s nuclear power stations. The plan will not go so far as to promote the construction of new nuclear power plants, including the Chugoku Electric Power Company’s nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, but it will indicate that a comeback for nuclear energy is appropriate.

Meanwhile, there are problems to be addressed with real effort before hastening to restart the nuclear plants. Japan has some 17,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, and disposal sites for this highly radioactive waste have not been determined.

Last month the government announced that the process of selecting potential locations for disposal sites will change. The national government will now take the central role in choosing candidate sites instead of the current method in which municipalities make applications. This approach, which imposes the government’s decision on municipalities, will not work.

Meanwhile, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. has submitted an application to the NRA for a safety assessment on its reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel, which is under construction in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. Though the assessment process will take a long period of time, once the facility starts operations, it will be able to extract seven tons of plutonium a year to be used as fuel for generating nuclear energy.

Though this will reduce the amount of spent fuel to some degree, it does not solve the problem of the final disposal sites. How can the plutonium be consumed while dependency on nuclear energy is being reduced?

On the other hand, many citizens must be feeling uncomfortable that Japan, which experienced its worst nuclear accident in March 2011, is intending to export nuclear energy technology as if nothing untoward had happened.

Yesterday Mr. Abe met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Tokyo. Mr. Abe pledged that he will facilitate the necessary parliamentary approval for Japan’s nuclear energy agreement with Turkey to take effect.

Japan is also pursuing cooperation in this area with other countries like India, a nuclear weapon state. This will certainly bring some economic benefit to the nation, but is this really the right thing to do? It is important that the Diet hold a thorough discussion of this issue, taking into account public opinion and the attitude that Japan should hold as the A-bombed nation.

Reducing our dependence on nuclear power is inextricably linked to promoting the development of alternative sources of energy. The Abe administration has crafted a plan to develop the renewable energy industry, including the use of solar and wind power, but this must not end up as an empty slogan. How much effort will the government actually put into this initiative? Its commitment must be put to the test.

(Originally published on January 8, 2014)