Well, that didn’t take long. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government revealed a new framework energy strategy on Tuesday that places an emphasis on reviving the country’s nuclear reactors, shut down in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Though the Basic Energy Plan stresses that Japan eventually wants to wean itself off of a reliance on nuclear power, it opens the door for a nuclear restart. The FT reports:
The draft of a new Basic Energy Plan, made public on Tuesday, calls nuclear power an “important baseload electricity source” and effectively reverses a decision made by a previous government in 2012 to close all of Japan’s atomic power plants over the next several decades. […]The new Basic Plan, which is expected to be approved by Mr Abe’s cabinet by the end of March, could open the door to a broader nuclear revival, possibly even including the construction of new reactors. Though polls show a majority of Japanese remain antagonistic to atomic power after Fukushima, there are pockets of support in some areas that are home to plants, which bring jobs and subsidies.
This won’t be a popular decision in Japan, but it’s one informed by tremendous economic pressure. Pre-Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its power needs. To make up for that now-absent slice of its energy pie, it has had to import coal, oil, and LNG in record quantities. Japan is currently the world’s third-largest importer of oil, second-largest importer of coal, and the largest importer of LNG. These imports aren’t coming cheap, either. Asia pays an enormous premium for LNG: roughly four times the cost of American natural gas benchmarks. For Japan, a country that sources a significant portion of its GDP from energy-intensive manufacturing industries, this cuts especially deep.Nuclear energy catastrophes are thankfully exceedingly rare, but when things do go wrong, they go very wrong. Energy extraction and usage is all about minimizing risk rather than eliminating it. Nuclear energy’s merits—its zero-carbon emissions and base-load power production—make it a viable and even necessary component of many states’ power mix. But these plants need to be sited strategically (that is, not on major fault lines) and closely monitored. Abe has been intent on reviving Japan’s economy, but his country’s geography demands that he approach the nuclear question cautiously. This is one to watch.