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Economy & Tech

EDITORIAL | Choose Candidates Who Will Address Japan’s Energy Crisis

In the upcoming Upper House election, we should intensely scrutinize pledges made by political parties — that these are not just rhetoric designed to win votes.

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Solar panels damaged by floods in Nagano City in November 2019 (photographed by Yukuto Hagihara.)

Campaigning for the Upper House election is in full swing. And nuclear power as well as national energy policies have been among the top election issues raised in the debate to win over voters.

On Sunday, June 26, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) issued its first power usage warning. It came amidst torrid temperatures and a projected electrical power supply crunch for the region served by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) on the evening of June 27. 

The reserve power supply capacity was expected to drop to below 5%, it was announced. METI also called upon businesses and consumers to curtail electricity usage. 

The way to overcome such electrical power shortages is to increase the electrical power supply by restarting dormant nuclear power plants, and other proactive measures. 

As the election gets underway, the opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Democratic Party of the People (DPFP) have joined the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a public pledge to pursue reactivation of nuclear power plants after verifying their safety.

They now need to spell out the specific measures they would take to ensure a steady supply of electric power adequate to meet the needs of citizens in their daily lives as well as support the needs of industry.

[House of Councilors election 2022] at the party leaders’ debate hosted by the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo. (June 21, 2022. Photo by Takumi Kamoshida.)

Make Nuclear Power Happen

During the June 21 open forum that brought together the leaders of the various parties, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was asked how he proposed to deal with the tight electrical power supply situation. The Prime minister — who also serves as president of the LDP — said that all options would have to be seriously considered to encourage businesses and households to conserve energy. 

We would have to judge Kishida’s remarks as reflecting a startling lack of a sense of crisis.

The government is taking steps to subsidize consumers and businesses, for example, by establishing mechanisms for allocating points to families that conserve energy and buying back energy units saved by businesses. 

With global energy prices skyrocketing, families and businesses are seeing their electricity bills surge. Cutting energy usage, at best, can only reduce their energy bills by that portion.

However, such energy savings will not be sufficient to allow us to overcome the electrical power crisis we are confronted with. Nor will it provide a fundamental solution to our inadequate supply of electrical power. 

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The current electrical power shortfall can be traced to such factors as the great delay in restarting electrical power plants. Suspension or abolition of thermopower stations, and liberalization of the electrical power market are also components, along with the trend towards decarbonization. 

It is clear that the electricity supply crunch cannot be alleviated unless we steadily increase our electrical power supply through stable investment in nuclear power and thermal power generation.

Getting Specific About Solutions

However, no clear prescriptions for improvement can be found in the public pledges of the political parties mentioned earlier. Of the 33 nuclear power plants currently existing in Japan, only 10 have passed safety inspections and received regulatory clearance to be brought back online. And a mere 4 of these are in actual operation today. 

The actual situation by no means matches the LDP’s call for “maximum use of nuclear power.”

These delays in getting nuclear power plants restarted are largely due to the fact that safety inspections by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) have proceeded at a snail’s pace. 

Nuclear power plants are critical not only because they are carbon-free energy sources that generate electricity without emitting any greenhouse gasses, but also because they provide a stable supply of energy. 

Prime Minister Kishida has said that “more efficiency is needed” for nuclear power plant inspections. That being so, the discussion should clarify exactly how we can speed up the inspections and make them more efficient.

A street monitor in the Yurakucho district of Tokyo’s city center announces the power supply shortage and blackout warning in March 22, 2022.

Weather-Dependent Energy is Not Stable

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and some other opposition parties continue to call for decarbonization while emphasizing the expansion of renewable energy sources. Such policies will neither solve Japan’s electrical power shortfall nor ensure a stable supply of electrical power. 

Does the CDP really approve of becoming dependent on a fragile framework for electrical power that simply depends on energy savings? Voters should consider very carefully the policies being proposed by the various political parties. 

The CDP and some of the other opposition parties also are calling for getting rid of nuclear power, with the ultimate goal of creating a “society that will not be dependent on nuclear power.” 

In order to do that, they call for the expansion of solar and other renewable energy sources to replace nuclear power and thermal power generation. However, in March 2022, when the first warning of tightness in electrical power supply was issued for East Japan, the weather was so poor that solar energy generation facilities could not function. 

These parties should spell out practical policies concerning things like how electric power is to be secured in situations like that.

Winter Is Coming

The government forecasts the electrical power shortage to become even more critical in the winter of 2022-2023 than it is during the summer. It even projects that during the January-February period of 2023, the reserve power supply capacity ratio will turn negative. 

If electricity becomes unavailable during the winter, that is sure to have a serious impact on the living conditions and health of the public. It is imperative that Japan today recognize that it is approaching such a severe electrical power crisis. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, efforts to ensure energy security have been accelerating worldwide. That is especially true for Japan because of its dependency on imports of natural resources from overseas. 

At the same time, Japan and its G7 partners have decided to ban imports of petroleum and coal from Russia. In the future, repercussions from these developments will inevitably affect the LNG market as well. That makes it all the more urgent for us to diversify our suppliers and be prepared for unexpected emergencies.

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This Upper House election presents an opportunity to reconsider our energy policies, which have become skewed towards decarbonization in order to prevent global warming. More than anything else, we are in dire need of a balanced composition for our power resources. That means one which takes into account multiple perspectives, including energy security and costs.

In order to achieve that goal, while bearing in mind the current electrical power crisis, we should intensely scrutinize public pledges made by the various political parties that too often amount to nothing more than idealistic rhetoric designed to win votes. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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