Japan returns to maximum use of nuclear energy to solve energy and climate problems

TOKYO — Japan on Thursday adopted a new policy promoting greater use of nuclear energy to ensure a stable electricity supply amid a global fuel shortage and a reduction in carbon emissions – a major reversal. for the phased out plan since the Fukushima crisis.

The new policy says that Japan must maximize the use of existing nuclear reactors by restarting as many as possible and extending the operating life of older reactors beyond the 60-year limit. and by developing next-generation reactors to replace them.

Anti-nuclear sentiment and safety concerns surged in Japan after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and restart approvals have since been slow under stricter safety standards. Utility companies have applied to restart 27 reactors over the past decade. Seventeen have passed safety checks and only 10 have continued to operate. That is in line with Japan’s earlier plan to phase out nuclear power by 2030.

In contrast, the new policy states that nuclear power provides stable output and plays “an important role as a carbon-free primary load energy source in achieving supply stability and carbon neutrality.” ” and committed to “maintaining the use of nuclear energy in the future.”

The Ministry of Economy and Industry has drafted a plan to allow a 10-year renewal for reactors after 30 years of operation, and to allow utility companies to subtract time offline when calculating life expectancy. reactor operation beyond the current 60-year limit.

The plan was approved on Wednesday by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, paving the way for the policy to be adopted. The new safety testing rules still need to be compiled into law and approved by Congress.

Most nuclear reactors in Japan are more than 30 years old. Four reactors that have been in operation for more than 40 years have been licensed and one is currently operational.

The policy report says Japan will also promote the development and construction of “next-generation innovative reactors” with safer features to replace the approximately 20 reactors currently preparing to be discontinued. work.

Thursday’s adoption of the new policy comes less than four months after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida launched a “GX (Green Transition) Implementation Council” made up of outside experts and ministers to “review all options” to compile a new policy to address global fuel shortages amid Russia’s war with Ukraine and seek to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The council also approved plans to make renewables Japan’s primary energy source and further promote hydrogen and ammonia as well as offshore wind power and other forms of energy to promote decarbonisation. , supply resilience and economic security.

The regulator’s commissioner, Shinichi Yamanaka, told a news conference that the new safety rules requiring a license to operate every decade after 30 years would be safer than the option to renew it every 20 years. current for 40-year-old reactors.

Takeo Kikkawa, an economics professor at the Japan International University and an energy expert, said utility operators under the new policy can continue to use old equipment instead of investing in technology. new or renewable energy. He also said it is not safe to extend the operating life of old reactors.

“Of course, we should aim for newer technology and use it safely. Therefore, extending the life of the reactor is an undesirable move,” Kikkawa recently told a talk show.

Experts say the new policy does not help address the impending supply shortage as reactors cannot restart as quickly as the government hopes due to delayed safety upgrades by operators and other obstacles including local consent.

Nuclear power accounts for less than 7% of Japan’s energy supply, and achieving the government’s goal of raising its share to 20-22% by fiscal year 2030 will require around 27 reactors, from 10 current furnaces – a goal that some consider unattainable.

Experts say developing next-generation reactors involves huge costs and uncertain prospects.

Kenichi Oshima, a professor of environmental economics and energy policy at the University of Ryukoku, said some of what the government calls “innovative” reactors are not too different from existing technology and that the prospects are for nuclear fusion and other next-generation reactors is largely uncertain and unlikely to be achieved anytime soon.

The regulator came under fire on Wednesday after a civic group revealed that some of its experts had discussed the details with industry ministry officials before the official watchdog was required. consider changing the rules, despite their mandated independence.

Despite the failure and closure of the plutonium-fired reactor at Monju, Japan is determined to continue to recycle spent fuel at the trouble-prone Rokkasho plant and to recycle nuclear fuel, which has already generated a stockpile of excess plutonium and raised international concern about the country’s nuclear safeguards. . The Rokkasho factory recently announced the postponement of its 26th launch target to 2024 from 2022.

Opponents argue that nuclear power is inflexible and not even cheaper than renewables when it comes to adding the necessary end-to-end waste management and safety measures, and that it can cause cause immeasurable damage in an accident or conflict, as in Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear plants.

Ruiko Muto, a survivor of the Fukushima disaster, called the new policy “extremely disappointing”. “The Fukushima disaster is not over yet and the government seems to have forgotten what happened,” she added.


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