The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is reportedly set to submit a bill to the Diet, proposing a Zero Nuclear Basic Law. The bill seeks to make the abolition of the nation’s entire nuclear power generation system a key government policy goal. While the proposal is hardly being discussed in public because of its deficiencies in both specifics and feasibility, it is still worthwhile to give it serious attention.
Is it possible, as the CDP draft bill requires, to make a decision to do away with all nuclear reactors within five years of enactment of the legislation?
This writer believes that decision-making itself is safely within the realm of possibility. There would, however, be a mountain of problems accompanying attempts to implement it.
Predictably, the first issue it will face is how to duly compensate nuclear power-related facilities, which are still far from recovering investment costs.
The zero nuclear bill itself acknowledges that some sort of compensation would be called for. This is because power utility companies, which by law are responsible for ensuring stable power supplies, built the plants after gaining government approval. The companies would understandably seek some form of recompense in the event of a government policy change requiring the plants to be decommissioned earlier than scheduled.
Government allowances would also be necessary to enable nuclear power plants to finance their own so-called funeral costs—decommissioning expenses that the companies, expected to underwrite using reserve funds, set aside throughout their years of operation.
Then there are the additional questions, such as how Japan would deal with the consequent rise in fuel costs for thermal power plants that would serve, at least for a time, as substitutes for nuclear power generation. The future economic impacts on host municipalities for existing plants must also be addressed.
Should the government be willing to finance what might be considered a commensurate portion of the costs, there would presumably be no reason for nuclear power plant operators to oppose the plants’ decommissioning. A top executive of a power utility, in fact, might feel rather relieved to be shielded from the business risk of continuing to run a nuclear power facility whose operation could be subject to suspension at any time because of community consensus in the host municipality or a decision in nuclear plant-related litigation.
Under the CDP draft, the challenge of disposing of nuclear waste would also remain unresolved, although the unspoken expectation seems to be that the utilities would continue assuming this responsibility. Of course, the waste arises from the utilities’ power generation operations before they shut down. Under this scenario, there would be little differences between continuing and discontinuing nuclear power generation when it comes to nuclear waste disposal.
Risks to the Public
The actual problem of terminating the nuclear reactors would be the risks imposed upon the Japanese public due to the absence of nuclear power. Although there has been remarkable progress in the efforts to expand the use of renewable energy, power generation from such renewables as solar energy and wind power accounts for no more than about 5% of the nation’s electric power requirements. Moreover, the volume of power generation through renewables can fluctuate erratically because of weather conditions.
Fortunately, so far, there has been no massive blackout or similar power failure, despite the stoppage of nuclear power production. There can be no room, however, for doubting that surplus power generation capabilities under the current system have been dwindling at an alarming rate.
In fact, the area served by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) plunged into an extremely severe electrical shortage just this past winter. The cause of the shortage was a combination of factors, including a spike in heating demand due to freezing weather, malfunctions at TEPCO’s thermal power plants, and failure of solar power generation systems when the solar panels became buried under heavy snowfall. TEPCO barely managed to get through the cold season with the help of other utilities that supplied electricity to meet TEPCO’s shortfall and by asking large-lot power users to curb or suspend their electrical use.
Thorny issues that must be resolved are not limited to the short-term stability of power supplies. For one, the increases in thermal power generation has resulted in ballooning fuel costs, causing power bills to rise by 25% for households and by as much as 40% for industries operating at peak times.
Some heavy power users decided to cease business during this time. While soaring power bills were not the only reason for business closures, clearly they were one of the major factors.
Although relatively low prices on imported crude oil have continued over the past couple of years, it is of great concern that oil prices have begun to turn upward recently. This serves as a reminder that the importation of oil and natural gas has always been accompanied by geopolitical risks. In the absence of nuclear power generation, Japanese oil refiners could find themselves at an even more disadvantage in price negotiations with oil exporters.
Meanwhile, Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions stemming from power generation have been surging sharply. Ever since the 2016 adoption of the Paris Agreement calling for reduced CO2 emissions, they have instead been rising worldwide. This highlights the duty of Japan to craft and push through legislative measures for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by a large margin. As options are considered, we should be aware that even such countries as Germany and Spain that have successfully introduced renewable energy into their economy in large quantities have been struggling to make progress as envisioned on reducing CO2 emissions.
It is also vital to keep intact the human resources who have techniques and expertise essential for tackling the challenges of nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning of reactors.
The bill sponsored by the CDP hardly refers to any of these risks arising from the elimination of nuclear energy. It also fails to present any views or ideas on how to ramp up the safety of nuclear energy or how it can better contribute to the improvement of people’s lives, given that it is set to stay, at least for the time being.
Clarify Japan’s Vulnerability
The CDP’s zero nuclear bill lacks persuasion, probably because the party has trapped itself into the rhetoric as if the words alone are good enough to resolve the nuclear energy conundrum. Whether or not nuclear energy should continue to be used must ultimately be up to the judgement of the public after weighing risks and benefits.
The bill creates an illusionary enemy that is presented as wanting to continue the nuclear energy business, and then figuratively seeking to tie up the villain by forging a new law. However, the enemy in the true sense of the word is the risk that arises from not making use of nuclear energy. This makes it highly important to find and take effective steps against any dangers presented by its continued use.
Meanwhile, it is questionable whether the government has been at all successful in getting out its message as to the basis for the nation’s energy policy and risks assumed in it. The government must come out with a clear-cut message that articulates a high sense of responsibility regarding Japan’s energy supply vulnerability as well as the state of existing nuclear power safety measures, response measures in the event of another nuclear accident, and other tasks such as the prospects for nuclear waste disposal.
Risks accompanying the utilization of nuclear power technology have been brought to the fore publicly in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. What must be made clear, however, is that a key role of the government is to prepare scrupulously for all foreseeable risks, even though some may not be visible to the public.
Sumiko Takeuchi is the director and chief researcher of the International Environment and Economy Institute (IEEI), Japan. She is a member of Seiron (Sound opinion) writers.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)