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Fukushima still looms over energy decisions

Japan ignores strategic low-carbon energy options and risks muddling through by adding more coal

The surprise resignation of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe due to illness, just over a year before elections scheduled for October 2021, creates possible inflection points for a policy overhaul in a country dogged by energy insecurity.

Yet Japan’s conservative and self-reinforcing political culture, in which getting along is more important than strategic vision, means we are likely to see more of the same.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will choose a successor to Abe on 14 September, with chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga favoured to take over and therefore likely be in power until the elections.

If Suga is able to provide a sense of continuity with Abe's tenure, it would be very hard to see what would motivate the electorate to choose a new party says, Dan Shulman, principal at consultancy Shulman Advisory in Tokyo.

The scheduled release of a new Basic Energy Policy in an election year creates an opening for the LDP to make changes, such as raising the 2030 renewables target. But Shulman sees no sign of radical change. Policy may become “a tad more definitive and aggressive as far as weaning Japan off of coal, but I do not think drastically so.” 

“A new policy based on renewables and nuclear power is out for the time being” Cogan, Kansai Gaidai University

Part of the problem is that the Abe government has been sidetracked by Covid-19 and the huge stimulus package needed to sustain the economy, says Mark S Cogan, associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka. There should have been policy discussions about moving Japan from fossil fuel, coal and nuclear dependence to a more environmentally sustainable position, he argues. But those conversations have taken a back seat.

While Suga has suggested that Japan has to move closer to carbon neutrality, Japan still plans to build over 20 new coal-burning plants over the next five years, Cogan notes. “A new policy based on renewables and nuclear power is out for the time being.”

Nuclear, renewables spurned

In terms of energy security, policy seems to be based on hope rather than strategy. Entrenched industrial interests mean there is no clear consensus on a shift to renewable power. And politics looks likely to keep a full-blown return to nuclear off the table.

“Japanese regulators have thrown the nuclear power baby out with the bathwater,” says Gabriel Collins, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston. “If I were advising the Japanese government, I would be pounding on the table for them to bring back idled nuclear capacity as soon as possible.”

The meltdown at Fukushima did not occur because the tsunami damaged the containment building or reactor, Collins says. The disaster occurred because diesel backup generators for the plant’s cooling system were placed as little as 10 to 13 metres above sea level.

In financial terms, he argues nuclear remains Japan’s best option. Steps to strengthen nuclear facilities—such as elevating generators and building gravity-fed cooling in areas bordered by steeper natural topography—are much cheaper than the investment that would be needed in renewables, he says.

Collins calculates that idled nuclear capacity could generate about five times the energy produced by wind and solar in the country in 2019.

The rational approach, Collins says, would be to restart nuclear facilities to be the grid's “stabilising foundation” while building renewable capacity to offset retirements of fossil fuel plants. Such a strategy is based on the premise that it is possible to “strip out the politics”. That is not going to happen, but given Japan’s level of energy insecurity, it is a failing the country cannot afford in the long term.

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