Promotion or Regulation? Blurred Lines in Japan’s Nuclear Energy Policy

Politics Economy

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio appears to have successfully brought Japan back toward more acceptance of nuclear power in the nation’s energy mix. Obstacles remain to making this a reality, though, including the expense of building new plants and maintaining old ones, as well as regulatory issues that keep many nervous about relying on the atom for power.

Japan’s Nuclear Energy Policy: From “Minimum Possible” to “Maximum Use”

On February 10, 2023, the cabinet of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio effected a major shift in Japan’s nuclear energy policy. The Basic Policy for the Realization of GX (green transformation) represented an about turn from the more cautious approaches of the Abe Shinzō and Suga Yoshihide administrations. During both of the earlier governments, restarts of nuclear power plants were allowed under certain circumstances, but the stated long-term aim was to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy. This essentially meant no new nuclear reactors would be built or existing sites upgraded. By contrast, the new GX Basic Policy straightforwardly states that, as nuclear power is one of the sources that “contribute to national energy security and are highly effective for decarbonization,” it will be utilized to the maximum extent possible. The government has moved to develop and construct next-generation reactors, particularly on sites with decommissioned nuclear facilities.

The new GX Basic Policy functionally extends the permitted operational lifespan of existing nuclear power plants. The existing policy stated that plants could be operated up to “40 years in principle” and up to a maximum of 60 years, but now, any down time due to court or regulatory proceedings, such as the periods following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, will not count against this operational lifespan, meaning some nuclear facilities could operate beyond 60 years. The cabinet then codified the changes in the GX Decarbonization Power Supply Bill submitted to the Diet on February 28. The legislation was a package of amendments to five energy-related laws eventually enacted in May.

However, the trauma from the nuclear tragedy has not fully healed for the locals around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Due to 880 tons of nearly impossible-to-remove fuel and debris on site, decommissioning shows no prospect of being completed before the initial estimate of 40 years. As of August 2023, 337 square kilometers of land across seven municipalities still cannot be inhabited, and 26,808 people remain displaced from their homes in Fukushima Prefecture. On August 24, ALPS-treated water containing radioactive tritium was discharged into the sea over the objections of the local fishing industry. Given the ongoing situation in Fukushima and remaining safety concerns surrounding the operation of nuclear power plants, why has Japan’s nuclear energy policy changed so abruptly?

TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on August 24, 2023. (© Jiji)
TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on August 24, 2023. (© Jiji)

The Cautious Abe and Suga Administrations

The cost of nuclear power generation is not low if we consider full life cycle costs such as fuel reprocessing, radioactive waste disposal, decommissioning costs in addition to accident response and risk mitigation costs. Construction and safety costs have also risen significantly since March 2011. However, for already constructed nuclear power plants, generation costs are low and help lower electricity prices.

Due to this, and because nuclear power plants also incur high maintenance and management costs during shutdown periods, Japan’s power companies, wider industry, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry have pushed strongly for the restart of offline nuclear power plants whose operations have been suspended until their operators can prove that they meet new regulatory standards.

The government also never explicitly ruled out the construction of new power plants during the Abe and Suga administrations. Indeed, officials continued to cite nuclear power’s ability to curb power generation costs, ensure a stable supply of electricity while increasing energy self-sufficiency, and contribute to climate change mitigation by decarbonize the Japanese economy. Furthermore, there was concern that by fully moving away from nuclear energy, Japan would run the risk of losing human resources and technological capabilities, falling behind in important areas like energy security and national competitiveness. This was particularly concerning as Russia and China looked to take the lead in the building of next-generation reactors.

However, fearing public opinion, both Abe and Suga maintained that they had no plans to builds new facilities on new or existing sites “at the current point in time.” Public opinion remained hesitant about nuclear energy throughout their administrations up through the start of the Kishida administration, with support ranging between 28% and 32% and a consistently strong majority opposing restarts in Asahi Shimbun polling. The Suga administration followed this cautious approach and even appointed nuclear sceptics Kōno Tarō and Koizumi Shinjirō to important cabinet positions focused on the promotion of renewable energy. Prime Minister Kishida himself was also initially “not that enthusiastic” about pushing for a return to nuclear energy generation. In a 2021 book, Kishida wrote: “My opinion is that in the future we should reduce our dependence on nuclear generation and make renewable energies such as offshore wind, geothermal, and solar power the main sources of Japan’s power.”

Soaring Energy Prices, Weak Yen as Tailwinds for Nuclear

Japan’s nuclear energy proponents were in for a more welcoming climate, though. As Western countries began to loosen COVID-19 pandemic restraints, economic activity began to ramp up. However, fossil fuel energy supplies and production could not keep up with consumption demand, and global prices soared. This prompted central banks to raise interest rates to dampen inflationary effects. Then, Russia’s February 2022 military invasion of Ukraine made securing a stable supply of energy an even greater challenge globally.

Tokyo, however, continued its expansionary fiscal and monetary policy. The rapidly weakening yen compounded Japan’s situation due to the country’s almost total reliance on imported sources of oil and natural gas. Inflation reached levels not seen in Japan for decades.

In addition to the cost of energy inputs, Japan has not been building newer, more efficient energy generation facilities fast enough to replace the country’s inefficient and decommissioned fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Due in part to the Japanese government’s decarbonization commitments, the result has been a reduced electricity supply capacity, even higher prices, and an increased risk of large-scale blackouts. Indeed, the government issued Japan’s first-ever power supply alert in March 2022 for the TEPCO and Tōhoku Electric service areas.

Faced with this dire situation, public opinion also began to change on nuclear energy. According to a February 2022 Asahi Shimbun survey, opponents of restarting nuclear power plants fell below a majority for the first time. After his Liberal Democratic Party comfortably won the July 2022 House of Councillors election, Prime Minister Kishida was in the position to enjoy “three golden years” where he would not have to face a national election unless he himself decided to call one. Japan’s emboldened leader then held the first meeting of the GX Implementation Council on July 27 and began to move government policy toward building new nuclear power plants and/or extending the operating periods of existing facilities.

In December 2022, the Asahi Shimbun reported that Kishida’s political secretary, Shimada Takashi, had at one point stated that upgrading or replacing nuclear power plants was now the policy of this government. Shimada is a former administrative vice-minister at METI and was also a TEPCO director after it was effectively nationalized. Within METI, voices grew louder that it was “now or never” for a decision on going back to nuclear energy. The Kishida administration soon began to actively promote the construction of new nuclear power plants, saying it was “better to build new facilities than rely on old ones.” Public opinion on nuclear restarts continued to relax: The February 2023 version of the Asahi Shimbun survey found a majority of respondents now in favor of restarts (51%) as opposition dropped to 42%.

The actual effects of these decisions will do little to resolve Japan’s ongoing energy challenges in the near term, but nevertheless demonstrated the confidence of the government in using nuclear energy as a banner for its decarbonization efforts. Japan’s power companies, wider industry, and METI had successfully exploited the current opportunity to shift Japan’s energy policy back to a greater reliance on nuclear energy.

Achieving What Abe Could Not

Why, then, was it Kishida, who was initially skeptical of reliance on nuclear energy, and not former prime ministers like Abe, a nuclear proponent, that decided to take the risk of losing public support to lead Japan’s charge back to nuclear energy use?

Even before becoming prime minister, Kishida was known for lacking a political vision of his own. However, in December 2022, he announced several historic policy shifts. Not only did his government announce a pivot back to greater nuclear energy use within Japan’s energy mix, Kishida also announced a potentially transformational shift in Japan’s security policy with the revision of the three key security documents, a substantially increased military budget, and an official decision allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to develop “counterattack capabilities” for striking overseas military positions attacking Japan.

Kishida purportedly could not hide his exuberance, telling people around him that “I have done what even Abe could not do.” Furthermore, at a press conference on January 4, 2023, Kishida described the historical character of his cabinet as one focused on confronting “head on” difficult and unresolved issues that the nation simply could not postpone. He then turned his attention to one of the most difficult—the declining birthrate—by saying he would develop measures “at a totally different level” from steps previously taken to ensure Japan could maintain its society as a whole.

Kishida did not become prime minister to implement any specific agenda. As political survival appears to be his primary goal, he is taking a pragmatic approach to prolonging his administration by developing a reputation for tackling difficult issues that cannot be postponed any longer. By doing so, he is looking to gain recognition within the government and LDP to increase his political capital and leverage.

Reprocessing and Disposal Issues

Numerous challenges remain even as the government pivots back to an energy policy based on maximizing the use of nuclear energy. Some experts doubt whether the construction of new nuclear power plants can be realistically implemented. Costs are likely to be substantial for the next generation of nuclear reactors, such as the innovative light water reactors used in recent European nuclear power plants—estimates for these plants are up to ¥1 trillion. While people may support nuclear restarts in general, their attitudes change when the proposals are made to build new nuclear facilities close to them. Backlashes from local residents are likely to remain a roadblock. Concerns have also been raised about the substantial extension of the operating periods of plants, and whether effective safety regulations can be maintained as designs become outdated and equipment deteriorates.

A traditional criticism levelled at nuclear power operations in Japan is the lack of a complete fuel cycle policy, where used fuel can be reprocessed and safely stored. This was supposed to be alleviated somewhat by the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori. However, this facility is no longer expected to be completed, and a final disposal site for highly radioactive waste has not been decided. The “broken” nuclear fuel cycle in Japan looks certain to continue.

In addition, municipalities surrounding existing plants have failed to formulate evacuation plans in the event of a complex nuclear accident, and even where such plans have been formulated, their effectiveness has been questioned. With Russia attacking and occupying a nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the possibility that nuclear facilities could become the target of a military or terrorist attack in the future seems all the more plausible.

The nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. (© Kyōdō)
The nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. (© Kyōdō)

The resumption of operations at existing facilities has also not progressed to the satisfaction of some in the ruling party and the business community. They have voiced their dissatisfaction with the Nuclear Regulation Authority in particular over the prolonged review process. However, many of the plants under review are in difficult environments or areas vulnerable to natural disasters, making it difficult to demonstrate safety. This is often compounded by mistaken data submitted by power companies when applying for restarts.

The Blurred Line Between Promotion and Regulation

More problematic is the decreasing sense of independence surrounding the NRA. This independence was called into question following the decision to substantially extend the maximum operating period. As of July 2022, former METI officials occupied the top three senior official positions in the NRA’s secretariat: the secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, and chief engineering officer. Furthermore, it was revealed that in the process of formulating changes to Japan’s nuclear legislation that officials from the NRA’s secretariat and METI’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy discussed amendments without informing the NRA chair, as is required by law. The close relationship between METI and the NRA’s secretariat appears to have deepened after a period of apparent NRA independence following its establishment in 2012.

Another problem arose in February 2023 as the NRA’s commissioners deliberated on amendments to extend the life cycle of nuclear power plants while transferring administrative jurisdiction for such decisions from the NRA (based on the Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material, and Reactors) to METI (Under the Electricity Business Act). Commissioner Ishiwatari Akira opposed the proposal, saying that he did not believe the proposed changes improved safety or had any scientific basis. Despite Ishiwatari’s opposition, the committee took the unusual step of voting on the proposal rather than forming a consensus. Eventually, a majority vote of 4 to 1 approved the draft amendments.

However, several committee members who voted in favor of the proposal later voiced their dissatisfaction with being rushed into a decision based on a deadline imposed from the outside. There was also unease with the deferral of plans to create concrete regulations for ensuring safety after life extensions up to the 60-year maximum and beyond as envisaged for some nuclear facilities. This outcome is the result of pressure exerted on the NRA by a government in a hurry to revise legislation.

To make maximum use of nuclear energy, the Kishida cabinet has blurred the separation between the government’s “regulation” and “promotion” responsibilities when it comes to energy policy. This separation was implemented in part based on the lessons from the nuclear accident following the 3/11 disaster and to reassure the public; undermining it might only make the future use of nuclear energy harder to justify and implement.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Kansai Electric’s Takahama Nuclear Power Station. © Kyōdō.)

energy nuclear power environment Kishida Fumio 3/11