Editorial: Basic energy plan seeks return to use of nuclear energy

An advisory council to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) endorsed the government’s draft of the nation’s basic energy plan on December 13. The plan will serve as a guideline for Japan’s medium-term energy policy.

The first part of the proposed plan contains some sober reflection on the nuclear accident that occurred in March 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear plant, run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. However, as the plan proceeds, the reader cannot help but feel that the country is backsliding into a pre-accident state of affairs.

The plan refers to nuclear energy as an important and fundamental energy source and stipulates that the government will promote the restart of the nation’s nuclear power plants once their safety is confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. This means that the current administration will be abandoning the aim declared by the previous Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, that of discontinuing the use of nuclear energy.

The proposed plan states that the degree of dependence on nuclear energy will be lowered, as much as possible, by conserving energy, introducing renewable energy sources, and generating thermal power more efficiently. But it does not say to what degree this is feasible. It also states that a “necessary number” of nuclear power stations will be maintained, which leaves the door open for constructing new reactors.

The public’s support for abandoning nuclear energy must be as firm as before. Returning to the use of nuclear energy, with our priorities placed only on short-term losses and gains, is nothing but the easiest course of action.

One reason the plan values nuclear energy is the low cost said to be involved in nuclear power generation.

Electric power companies have been extending the operating times of thermal power stations, while rising fuel prices are undermining their management. Some companies that have depended heavily on nuclear energy to earn revenue have had to raise their electricity rates.

Restarting the nuclear reactors would clearly improve the operating conditions of electric power companies in the immediate future. Corporations which make use of electricity would also benefit from the fall in price.

But when a broader view is taken, we doubt that the costs of nuclear energy are truly low. The accident in Fukushima has demonstrated that once an accident occurs, an enormous amount of money must be mobilized to deal with the consequences. In fact, a huge sum, from tax coffers, has already been spent on the Fukushima disaster.

In addition, the more efforts that are made to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants, the more money is needed for these facilities. It cannot be said that nuclear energy is an inexpensive source of electricity.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi cited the problem of securing permanent disposal sites for the high-level radioactive waste as a reason for supporting the elimination of nuclear energy. The plan offers no concrete solution to this concern, either.

The process of choosing potential locations for disposal sites will change from the current method in which municipalities make applications directly. Instead, the national government will take the central role in choosing candidate sites, from a scientific perspective, and seek to build consensus within these municipalities.

But based on what has already transpired, it is hard to image such municipalities readily approving the construction of nuclear disposal sites within their boundaries. And if the reactors are restarted without a concrete strategy for creating these needed facilities, the radioactive waste will only grow. Action along these lines would merely put off addressing this serious problem.

In the first place, the target of eliminating nuclear energy by the 2030s was advanced by the DPJ government after views from the public were gathered through hearings held in 11 parts of the country, along with discussion-type opinion polls. In another effort which solicited comments from the public, nearly 90 percent of the people expressed their support for eliminating the use of nuclear energy. This goal reflects the desire of a great number of people in this nation.

Can the government dismiss this desire so easily? Following the change of administrations in December 2012, the anti-nuclear energy members were removed from METI’s council, making it a group of mainly proponents of nuclear power. We suspect that the conclusions found in the basic energy plan were a fait accompli before discussions began.

The government will adopt the energy plan at a Cabinet meeting in January. In the meantime, METI is soliciting public opinions on the draft plan until January 6. Though time is limited, this is another opportunity to express the will of the people.

(Originally published on December 15, 2013)