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Ridding Japan of nuclear power: Difficult task ahead

September 6, 2012

Editorial: Nuclear power must go, and we need a plan to make it happen



The government's new energy policy, including the weighty question of what percent of Japan's generating capacity will be nuclear, is close to completion. With the nation's energy future all the way up to 2030 on the line, we must point out that nuclear power brings with it a host of problems, from reactor safety to used fuel disposal. As such, a nuclear-free future is most desirable, and the government must make its goal the elimination of atomic energy in this country.

Ridding Japan of nuclear power will be painful, both for industry and citizens. That being so, the government must lay out a clear and realistic path to eliminating atomic energy and do all it can to earn the people's trust and support.

The government has already revealed plans to decommission reactors once they've been in service for 40 years. If no new reactors are built to replace them, by 2030 nuclear plants will be producing just 15 percent of Japan's electricity, and by 2050 it will drop to zero. However, the end of nuclear power generation could well come earlier than that, as reactors could be decommissioned before they turned 40 if they failed to meet safety standards or other operational requirements.

Meanwhile, our dependence on nuclear power could be reduced a notch with the broader adoption of electricity-saving measures and technologies, and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal. With these options available, we call on the government to push these alternative energy sources and clearly indicate its will to work to end atomic power generation as soon as possible.

Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster began last year, reactors were providing some 30 percent of Japan's electricity. To say we will go from that to zero is indeed a policy shift of revolutionary proportions, and of course it's easy to imagine there will be difficulties along the way.

For example, what would happen to industry and to our daily lives if the government allowed electricity rates to rise to as much as double current prices? Certainly the blow would be a tough one to absorb, especially for the industrial world, and would likely invite a further hollowing-out of domestic manufacturing. To prevent this bleak scenario from becoming a bleak reality, the government must spark price competition among power companies by introducing a truly free domestic energy market, as well as secure cheap fuel sources such as North American shale gas.

Meanwhile, the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel is becoming all the more urgent. The very raison d'etre of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle program, which was supposed to underpin the operation of reactors in this country, is falling to pieces. If the nuclear fuel cycle program is indeed dead, then we can no longer delay answering the question of what to do with all Japan's spent fuel, massive amounts of which now languish in "mid-term storage" at nuclear stations and at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture.

At the Rokkasho plant alone, there are some 3,000 metric tons of spent fuel collected from across the country. One might term this poisonous stockpile the bill we are leaving to our descendants for the cost of maintaining our cushy lifestyle. We cannot run away from this challenge. If the government indeed declares it will aim for a nuclear-free Japan, then as part of that it must set about disposing of the country's nuclear waste once and for all.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the government in general have begun final deliberations on Japan's energy future. The outcome we fear most is that the government will raise the nuclear-free banner and then do nothing. With a general election approaching, the parties must not turn this issue into just another work of political theater. This policy will determine the future of our country, and must be treated with the gravity it merits.

For Japan to rid itself of atomic power, nothing short of a revolution in society and economics is needed, and to make that happen the government must have the agreement of the nation -- including industry. As such, we call on the government to produce a concrete and persuasive policy laying out how Japan will realize its non-nuclear future.

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