Japan considers developing new nuclear reactors in major policy shift

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has instructed his government to consider developing new nuclear reactors, ending an 11-year prohibition on the use of the technology.

Eleven years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan is considering a sharp U-turn on its nuclear strategy. 

In a surprise statement, Kishida revealed he had directed a government panel to look into how “next-generation nuclear reactors equipped with new safety mechanisms” could be used to help Japan achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The panel's conclusions are expected to be published at the end of the year. 

The plan is effectively a total reversal of the nuclear safety measures the country imposed after a powerful tsunami destroyed Fukushima Daiichi’s backup electricity supply, causing three of its six reactors to suffer meltdowns. In order to prevent a similar disaster from repeating itself, Japanese authorities shut all existing nuclear plants and imposed a moratorium on new nuclear projects.

For over a decade, the Japanese government has avoided building new reactors or replacing ageing reactors, fearing a public backlash. However, during an energy policy meeting this week, Kishida said the Ukraine war and soaring energy costs highlighted the need for diversifying energy sources.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has vastly transformed the world’s energy landscape. Japan needs to bear in mind potential crisis scenarios,” he said. “To overcome an imminent crisis caused by a power supply crunch, we must take the utmost steps to mobilise all possible policies in the coming years and prepare for any emergency.”

Kishida's strategy might go beyond developing new reactors, as he revealed the Japanese government would also look into expanding the life expectancy of existing ones beyond the legal limit, by excluding the period they remained shut down when calculating their operating time.

Economy and industry minister Yasutoshi Nishimura added it was “extremely important to secure all options to redesign a stable energy supply for our country", stressing that the government will "consider all options regarding nuclear power.”

The plan will, however, have to win public support, which has positioned itself heavily against nuclear energy since the Fukushima disaster. In particular, the restarting of two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa - the biggest nuclear plant in the world - would be controversial, since it is run by Tokyo Electric Power, the same company that operates Fukushima Daiichi and whose executives have been ordered by a court to pay a $94.8bn (£80bn) fine relating to the 2011 disaster.

Before the Fukushima meltdowns, about one-third of Japan's electricity was generated from nuclear sources. In 2020, the figure was less than 5 per cent.

Despite past hesitance over the use of nuclear energy, Kishida stated his belief that voters have become more receptive to nuclear power due to rising fuel costs and a wider commitment to reducing the country's carbon emissions. 

“It is the first step towards the normalisation of Japan’s energy policy,” Jun Arima, a project professor at Tokyo University’s graduate school of public policy, told The Guardian.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has considered that Japan's reaction to the nuclear disaster was "overblown" and caused an increase in the country's dependence on fossil fuels. Moreover, a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) said there was likely no path toward 2050 zero-emissions carbon goals that doesn't include the use and expansion of nuclear power as a transitional step. 

"Nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in helping countries to securely transition to energy systems dominated by renewables," the IEA said. 

The Fukushima meltdown was considered the worst nuclear disaster since that at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 1986, and prompted the declaration of a 30km evacuation zone around the Japanese plant. 

Although there were reported deaths or cases of radiation sickness directly caused by the nuclear accident, over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a preventative measure and many have not returned. Seven years after the disaster, a Greenpeace report found that radiation levels in the area continued to be up to 100 times higher than normal.

Despite the painful memories of the disaster, Japan has set a target for nuclear power generation to account for 20-22 per cent of its electricity supply in 2030.

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