Japan’s Energy Basic Plan Avoids the Problems


The cabinet has approved the fifth energy basic plan, a blueprint for Japan’s energy policy. Nuclear is still positioned as a significant base load power source, but the plan says nothing about replacing deteriorated nuclear power stations or constructing new ones. How long will these issues remain unaddressed?

On July 3, 2018, the cabinet approved the fifth energy basic plan, spelling out the basic direction of Japan’s energy policy. The government is obligated under the Basic Act on Energy Policy to formulate a basic energy plan and, since the release of the first one in 2003, has reviewed it every three to four years. The latest iteration of the basic plan, its first revision in four years, sets forth targets for Japan’s energy mix in, as well as addressing issues concerning long-term energy options with the year 2050 as their focus.

This year’s plan includes a statement that the government will aim to make renewable energy Japan’s main source of power by 2050 and a policy to proactively tackle introduction and expansion of renewables. The 2030 targets, however, have been left unamended, with the energy mix set at 20% to 22% nuclear power, 22% to 24% renewable energy, and 56% thermal power.

The position of nuclear power in Japanese energy policy has attracted attention for some time. For now, it continues to be considered a significant base load power source. In the long term, it is positioned as an option for decarbonization at the practical-use stage. But nothing was stated about replacing deteriorated nuclear power stations or constructing new nuclear capacity, issues that appear to have been placed on the back burner.

For the long-term strategy focused on 2050, in addition to renewable energy, nuclear power generation, and thermal generation, the report indicates a policy of pursuing the feasibility of various other options, including next-generation technology like hydrogen and storage batteries. But there was little concrete discussion along these lines, and these future solutions do not appear in the target energy mix for 2050.

 A Half-Hearted Return to the Nuclear Course

A country with few natural resources and a dismally low self-sufficiency rate (just 8% as of 2016), Japan used to proactively promote nuclear power as quasi-home-grown energy. This situation, however, completely flipped after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Nuclear power, which had accounted for around 30% of all generated power until that point, was forced to a standstill, and public opposition to nuclear power generation quickly strengthened. In September 2012, the Democratic Party administration hammered out a policy of zero nuclear power by the 2030s in the Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment.

Subsequently, the Liberal Democratic Party regained power, and the fourth energy basic plan (2014), the first to be formulated after the nuclear incident, positioned nuclear power as a significant base load power source. While this returned Japan to the path of nuclear power use, the plan also stated that through means such as accelerating the introduction of renewable energy and optimizing coal power generation and other forms of thermal power generation, dependence on nuclear power would be reduced to the maximum extent possible.

Looking at the energy mix for 2030, however, in the national Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook  formulated in 2015 based on the fourth energy basic plan, the target value for nuclear power (20% to 22%) was set at almost the same level as that of renewable energy (22% to 24%).

To achieve these targets, it will be necessary to operate approximately 30 nuclear power plants. But today, seven years since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, just nine reactors at five nuclear plants have returned to operation. High hurdles remain to be cleared in the pursuit of the stated 2030 mix—replacing and newly constructing nuclear power plants will be essential—but, as is stated above, none of this was touched on in the fourth energy basic plan.

Will the Aimless Drift in Energy Policy Persist?

Discussions kicked off in the summer of 2017 toward formulating the fifth energy basic plan. Many hoped to see incisive debates in meetings of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry committee that staged these talks. At the outset, however, Economy Minister Sekō Hiroshige expressed the idea that it is not necessary to change the energy policy framework, citing reasons including the lack of major technological changes since the fourth energy basic plan, and the debates lacked vigor. In its final form, the fifth basic plan merely stuck to the content of its predecessor.

The discussions about renewable energy, initially labelled as one of Japan’s main sources of power in years to come, also lacked depth. Plans were put forward that would mobilize government resources toward policy goals like reducing energy system costs and making needed improvements to Japan’s power grid, but details on concrete solutions were scant, and there was no upward revision of individual component targets in the overall energy mix.

Even the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, which enjoys strong political support, is sensitive to public opinion trends. Despite its stance of promoting nuclear power and the nuclear fuel cycle, the Abe government has not attempted to square up to the challenge of nuclear power policy. As a result, a host of thorny problems—including the question of policy to advance renewable energy—will remain unaddressed until the next plan. If the administration in charge at that time fails to take bold action, it will result in yet another pointless and frustrating energy basic plan, and this aimless drift in the nation’s energy policy will persist.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 4, 2018. Banner photo © Jiji.)

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