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EDITORIAL | Note to Japan’s Next PM: Full Reliance on Renewable Energy Unrealistic

In the buildup to this week’s LDP leadership election, one of the biggest debate topics is the positions of the candidates on nuclear power and renewable energy.

Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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The landscape of Japan's public lands is being overwhelmed by solar panels in an effort to increase the output of renewable energy.

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Energy is the lifeblood of any country. Without cheap and stable electricity, productivity in any advanced information society falls short, and this affects people’s daily lives.

Appropriately, the energy issue represented by the sources for electricity is one of the major talking points among the four candidates in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election.

The issue of energy policies here in Japan is more grave than in other countries because of Japan’s lack of natural resources. This seriousness has intensified further due to the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming through the reduction of fossil fuel use.

The agreement has triggered a global movement toward achieving decarbonized societies, overlapping with economies, politics, and even international hegemony to create a huge tide of change across the world.

Carbon dioxide, and the way it is handled among countries, will dominate this century. Climate change and the guarantee of safe energy are two sides of the same coin, and it has become more vital that Japan’s energy policies are in sync with the global situation.

In the buildup to this week’s LDP leadership election, one of the biggest debate topics is the candidates’ comparative positions on the “nuclear fuel cycle,” including nuclear power and renewable energy.

In essence, Japan’s national policy is to reprocess the spent fuel from nuclear power plants, extract uranium and plutonium, and then put them back into the nuclear fuel cycle.

One of the four LDP candidates, Vaccine Minister Taro Kono, has long denied that there is any point to the nuclear fuel cycle policy, stating, “There is no point in continuing.”

As recently as September 18, Kono commented on the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, which plays a central role in closing the fuel cycle for Japan. He said, “Even if it’s restarted, there is no use [for the fuel].”

Instead, the vaccine minister’s aim might be to bury the spent fuel, without any reprocessing. But if this is the case, Kono cannot avoid the task of finding land that is large enough for burying the fuel.

Moreover, burying the spent fuel means it would take one million years for the fuel to decay to the same level as natural uranium. This is 10 times longer than it takes when fuel is reprocessed. There is rationality in reprocessing, and it appears to be a superior solution to burying the spent fuel on every count.

Japan is the only non-nuclear nation that separates plutonium for peaceful purposes, in accordance with its agreement with the United States. If Japan were to go ahead and bury the spent fuel instead, this would be a rash move that would cast a dark shadow over the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Japan.

Mihama nuclear plant.

Is He Changing Positions?

As soon as Kono set his sights on the LDP leadership election, he suddenly dumped his “anti-nuclear” mantra, stating: “We will restart nuclear power plants that are confirmed to be safe. This is a realistic approach.”

So, if Kono now tries to cancel the nuclear fuel cycle, this would be a duplicitous act.

If the cycle is indeed canceled, the spent fuel at reprocessing plants would be returned to each power plant from which it came, in accordance with an agreement with Aomori Prefecture. This would stretch nuclear-plant fuel pools to the limit, and possibly bring operations to a halt. It would effectively be the nail in the coffin for nuclear power plants across the country.

In Japan’s next basic energy plan, which is on the verge of being approved by the Cabinet, there is no mention of building any new nuclear power plants. It is unrealistic to aim for decarbonization with such a goal. If there is no new development, the initial figure of 54 power plants will decrease to 23 by 2050, and then to eight by 2060.

Even if renewable energy sources such as solar power are boosted, Japan cannot realistically hope to achieve a stable power supply or be carbon neutral by 2050.

An additional section on the construction of new power plants must be added to the basic energy plan — something that the former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi points out.

There is also the issue of waiting to restart power plants until it is too late in the day. At this rate, the country cannot expect to reach a 46% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by fiscal 2030 compared to fiscal 2013.

At COP26, which will take place in the United Kingdom from late October onward, Japan can expect to be rigorously questioned about its Paris Agreement targets, and will likely be asked to provide further targets for reduction on top of that. 

In order to respond to such demands, Japan will have to focus on nuclear power plants in a proactive fashion.

We are hoping that three of the LDP leadership candidates — Fumio Kishida, Sane Takaichi, and Seiko Noda — will be forward thinking on the issue of nuclear power.

All four candidates, including Kono, need to wake up from the utopian vision of relying on renewable energy. Kono must surely know that. Japan has excellent next-generation power-plant technology, such as high-temperature gas-cooled reactors.

Japan’s future, in light of the paradigm shift brought about by China’s unilateralism, rests entirely on the energy policies developed by the next leader of the country. 

We hope that the right person is chosen, and that Japan will become stronger through a tougher stance on energy.

RELATED: Is Protecting Japan from Enemy Missiles an Outdated Concept, Mr. Kono?

(Read the Sankei Shimbun editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun