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Japan approves nuclear phase-out by 2040

Government plan to idle nuclear stations will mean increase in fossil fuel use, including imports, and a larger role for renewable energy and efficiency
September 14, 2012

The ruling Japanese government party today approved a policy to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, a dramatic shift expected to increase fossil fuel use and drive demand for efficiency and renewable energy.

The town of Okuma was evacuated following the nuclear power plant crisis at Fukushima. Popular opinion against atomic energy has led to a dramatic change in energy policy. The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP

The plan formalizes Japan’s departure from nuclear power last year in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power station where all but two power stations were shut down for safety checks. As in Germany and Switzerland, public opinion in Japan has turned firmly against atomic energy, which led to today’s decision.

Japan’s remaining 50 nuclear reactors will operate until their planned 40-year lifetime but then be shut down, with the latest projected for the mid-2030s. The country intends to keep fossil fuel use at roughly current levels while tripling renewable energy’s share and increasing energy efficiency, according to government documents

In 2010, Japan got 26 percent of its electricity generation from nuclear plants, 63 percent from fossil fuel plants, and ten percent from renewable energy. Before the Fukushima disaster, the country had a strategic plan to increase nuclear to 45 percent by 2030 and renewable energy to 20 percent, thus decreasing its reliance on fossil fuels.

But the earthquake-induced nuclear power plant meltdown undermined the view of atomic energy’s safety among Japanese, which prompted the dramatic change.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan opposes the plan, saying it will have “a serious and immediate impact on Japan’s electricity supply.” The industry group also said it will result in higher greenhouse gas emissions and make it difficult to retain the skilled people needed to maintain current nuclear power facilities.

In the near term, Japan will rely more heavily on thermal power generation because renewable energy is expensive and unstable, the government said in the report, according to a Bloomberg report. As a result, Japan will continue to import oil, coal, and natural gas. (See, Can Japan Thrive Without Nuclear Power?

Government officials said many details of the plan, which also includes regulatory reforms on the wholesale and retail electricity markets, still need to be worked out, according to reports. 

In addition to more reliance on natural gas, the plan could also result in increased innovation around clean energy technologies, such as hydrogen and energy storage.

“The plan is worth trying, but sooner or later it will be realized it isn’t possible,” Hirofumi Kawachi, an energy analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities told Bloomberg. “To eliminate nuclear power by the 2030s will need breakthroughs in renewable and energy-efficient technologies.”

Cutting back nuclear power has reduced the power generation capacity on Japan’s grid and made it more difficult to maintain a steady balance between supply and demand. A report from Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics last month found that there was heightened risk to natural disasters and unplanned events in 2011 after most nuclear stations were taken off line. 

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