Japan pushes to restart nuclear power a decade on from Fukushima

Japan nuclear power energy uranium 2022
As it plans to restart nuclear power reactors throughout the country, Japan is also phasing out its coal plants.

After more than a decade since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced the government will move to restart idled nuclear power plants throughout the country.

Japan aims to minimise the demand on Russia’s oil and gas supplies following its invasion of the Ukraine.

The invasion of Russia into Ukraine has brought to light how dependent the country has become on imported oil and gas in the aftermath of the major earthquake and tsunami back in 2011, which triggered the Fukushima disaster.

Prime Minister Kishida said while the country doesn’t plan on setting up any new nuclear facilities, it will work on restarting existing plants.

“With priority in safety, we will take concrete steps to restart [plants],” he said.

“[Japan] will utilise nuclear reactors with safety assurances to contribute to worldwide reduction of dependence on Russian energy.”

Japan is home to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, which, when operational, was the largest nuclear power station in the world.

Pro-nuclear governor wins another term

Citizens across Japan watched on eagerly as the pro-nuclear governor of Japan’s Niigata prefecture defeated his anti-nuclear opponent in an election on Sunday.

Hideyo Hanazumi, who had strong backing from the Prime Minister Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), triumphed over long-time activist against nuclear energy, Naomi Katagiri.

Many experts believe this result would not have been possible just a few years ago, when the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster was fresh in voters’ minds.

However, today, people throughout the country are dealing with broader concerns, such as the global push to net zero, and the economic pain from rising energy costs and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Kashiwazaki city councilman with the anti-nuclear Japanese Communist Party Takashi Miyazaki said “many people used to think nuclear power was dangerous”.

“But a desperate desire to do something about this town’s economic decline may have helped spread the feeling that maybe nuclear restarts are the quick answer,” he said.

Plans to phase out coal power

As part of the worldwide drive to achieve net zero, the Japanese Government is also looking to step away from the use of coal power.

Just last year, the government shifted its goal to cut coal’s share of electricity generation to 19% by 2030, which changed from the 32% set in 2019.

Japan’s economy, trade and industry minister Koichi Hagiuda said the country will stick to the 2030 target as it looks to steadily phase out inefficient coal plants and prioritise decarbonised thermal power.

This comes after reports a draft communique suggested other countries are also considering committing to phasing out coal by 2030.

“I think what Japan has been advocating through every opportunity so far is percolating [through partner countries],” he said.

Existing plants in Japan

Only 10 nuclear reactors are operational in Japan, compared with 54 before the Fukushima disaster.

The government hopes to raise the nuclear power contribution in the country’s energy mix up to 22% by 2030, from 6% in 2019.

In Japan, 10 reactors have restarted out of the nation’s 60, with seven approved for restart, while 10 are also under review based on the new standards.

There are 24 in the process of being decommissioned, and a further nine have not yet asked for a review.

Prime Minister Kishida said restarts would only happen after proper safety clearance and with public approval.

He added “restarting just one existing nuclear reactor would have the same effect as supplying 1 million tonnes of new liquid natural gas (LNG) per year to the global market.”

LNG contributes to 37% of the nation’s electricity, with particularly Russia’s Sakhalin-2 oil and gas extraction project providing roughly 8% of Japan’s total LNG imports.

Japan is being urged to step away from the contracts with Russia, siding with major oil companies such as BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil.

Countries embracing nuclear power shift

Japan isn’t’ alone in prioritising a shift towards nuclear power, with discussions in countries such as Finland and the Philippines starting to gain serious attention in recent times.

In Finland, its Green Party voted overwhelmingly to have a fully pro-nuclear stance at its national meeting.

Savonia/Karelia chapter of Viite voting chair Tea Törmänen said the party is very happy and proud with the historic shift endorsed by the party.

“This is a historical moment in the history of the green movement, as we are the first green party in the world to officially let go of anti-nuclearism,” she said.

On top of this, recent public opinion polls show a strong majority in support of nuclear power in the country as a whole, with 74% backing nuclear, only 18% opposed to the shift.

This change is significant, with 42% opposed to the technology in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.

In the Philippines, the country’s nuclear power program shows promise under the new administration.

President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr has outlined his support for the inclusion of nuclear power in the country.

A campaign promise of Marcos Jr was the adoption of nuclear power, and consideration of the expensive 620-megawatt (MW) Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP).

Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) executive director Carlo Arcilla said “reviving the BNPP would be the way to go” if the newly elected was to keep true on his promise.

“If we reopen the BNPP, the fuel will cost is something from $20 million to $25 million. It is small and will fit in a small jeepney and will last for 18 months. In contrast, if that were a coal plant operating for 18 months, it would require 50 Panama ships from $700 million to $800 million,” he said.

“Savings alone in the running of the plant versus a coal plant, you can recover the investment as soon as two years.”

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