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Fukushima hasn't changed Gov't energy policy

April 29, 2015

Editorial: Returning Japan to bad old days of nuclear dependence a major blunder



Japan is about to go right back to where it started before the triple-meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. In a recently released Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry energy mix plan for the year 2030, nuclear power still takes up 20-22 percent of Japan's power generation capacity, with renewables slated for a 22-24 percent share. In the post-3.11 era, it's very difficult indeed to call this an appropriate mix.

Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, nuclear power made up just under 30 percent of Japan's generating capacity, and the government had planned to push that to more than 50 percent by 2030. Renewables including hydro accounted for about 10 percent, and were penciled in for a 20 percent or so share in the future.

Then came 3.11 and the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, which ought to have prompted the government to rethink its energy strategy. Under the energy policy approved by Cabinet decision last year, "the introduction of renewable energy sources will be sped up to the greatest degree possible. Furthermore, by adopting renewables and energy-saving systems, as well as by increasing the efficiency of thermal power generation, we will reduce (Japan's) dependence on nuclear power to the greatest possible extent."

The majority of the Japanese people, too, desire a "non-nuclear dependent society," and supported a radical denuclearization policy agenda. That support is now going unrecognized, those desires ignored.

After the meltdowns, new regulations came into force dictating that no reactor could be in service for more than 40 years. If this remains in force, then even if every currently idled reactor is restarted, and every reactor now under construction goes on line, by 2030 nuclear power will cover only around 15 percent of Japan's energy needs.

As such, that "20-22 percent" target in the economy ministry energy plan means extending the operational lives of or replacing old reactors, or building new ones. In other words, it is an outright declaration of dependence on nuclear energy. By the same token, the 22-24 percent of the energy mix assigned to renewables is a far, far cry from using green energy to the "greatest degree possible." Lowballing renewable energy is just one more example of the "reactors first" policy and its broader impact.

We at the Mainichi Shimbun have long maintained that the risks of nuclear power far outweigh the benefits in this earthquake-prone nation of Japan, and that we should do away with atomic energy as soon as possible. We do not deny there is an argument for keeping nuclear power from the perspective of economic risk and energy security, but if one considers that nuclear waste will continue to build up inside Japan as long as there are reactors in operation, atomic energy cannot be considered a sustainable energy source for this country.

We can hardly discuss the country's energy mix without considering whether it is right to keep pushing the nuclear waste problem onto future generations, thinking only of present-day economic prosperity.

And yet the economy ministry has pushed that very problem to the side, insisting on preserving nuclear energy regardless. We cannot agree with this.

We must also take issue with the assumptions that form the basis of energy mix figures and valuations. The government says that renewable energy cannot be expanded because costs -- such as the rates paid under the feed-in tariff system and the expansion of power transmission networks -- are simply too high to make it practical. Of course, no one can ignore a rising electricity bill, but surely we can all bear somewhat higher energy prices for the sake of reducing our nuclear power dependency. There also needs to be a debate on who should pay for electricity transmission network expansion.

Furthermore, far more than expanding transmission networks, what needs to be tackled first is reforming the daunting regulatory framework for getting renewable energy sources on line. Surely freeing up network capacity by decommissioning reactors, as well as emphasizing local generation and consumption -- which puts little load on the grid -- leaves a lot of room to expand green energy generation.

New energy cost calculations released by the government put the lower limit of nuclear energy costs at the cheapest they have ever been. We have to wonder, however, if the costs of implementing new safety measures and accident response funds have been properly reflected in the figures. Not everyone should agree, too, with the government assumption that the frequency of accidents will be halved due to the extra safety measures. We would like to see the government query a far larger range of experts and explain the issue exhaustively to the public to obtain their consent.

Even if the government wishes to guarantee 20 percent or more of the energy market to atomic power, it must open its eyes to the fact that it won't be easy.

If there is a move to extend the lives of old reactors, then there will be extra safety measure costs. Getting the consent of host municipalities and their residents will also be difficult. As such, we'll likely see utilities shuttering older nuclear reactors purely for business reasons. What's more, even if a utility could keep a reactor going past the 40-year limit, chances of some sort of mishap would increase, and there would be no guarantee of smooth, trouble-free power generation.

So it seems likely that some quarters will argue for building new reactors, new plants. But then again, construction mishaps and holdups can delay a new reactor for years, swelling costs. There is more than one example of this overseas. What's more, if the electricity market is opened up to true competition, nuclear energy may very well be driven to extinction by free market forces.

What will happen, then, if the government shuts its eyes to all this and sticks to its well-crafted figures and tables, all pointing to continued reliance on "cheap" nuclear power? It would blunt the society-wide drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through green energy and electricity saving. And then, when nuclear energy generation fell short we would, in the end, fall back on fossil fuels. This is an all-too likely scenario, one in which Japan's CO2 emissions rise once more and we are forced to buy fuel from foreign lands to keep the lights on.

Essentially, the failure of the economy ministry to produce an energy policy that can pass the public's sniff test is down to this: government policy formulation has not changed a whit from before the Fukushima meltdowns. The committee considering Japan's energy mix is still composed almost entirely of people pushing for the continuation -- or even the expansion -- of nuclear power in this country. We must question a decision-making process that seemed to begin with setting aside a large share of the future energy market for atomic power.

This way of doing business looks more than likely to lose the trust and cooperation of the Japanese people. The government must state clearly and absolutely that it is committed to freeing Japan from nuclear dependence, and then think on an energy mix policy that will get us there.________________________________________________________________

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