20 September 2012

Japan’s Nuclear Phaseout Strategy Raises More Questions Than It Answers

The Japanese government on 14 September 2012 announced, as expected (see Japanese Government Expected to Announce Zero Nuclear Option), that it adopted an “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment”, for a zero nuclear power future by the 2030s. However, due to lack of clarity, the government statements immediately gave way to speculations as to the schedule for the shutdowns, the future of the plutonium fuel industry and of the reactors under construction.

The English language statement published by the Prime Minister’s office did not say anything specific about the content of the “Innovative Strategy”. On its publication the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) was quick to “strenuously deplore that the Government presented the policy to ’devote all policy resources to achieving zero nuclear power generation in the 2030s’”. The quote apparently stems from a leaked draft version of the strategy paper. The industry lobby organization Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) declared: “Giving up the option of nuclear energy would not only impose an excessive economic burden on the people in the future, but would be an abdication of Japan’s responsibility to the international community – as a country with advanced nuclear technology – which cannot ever be the case.” And Japan’s Business Federation Keidanren had voiced strong criticism against the zero-nuclear policy even prior to the announcement of the Strategy.

The Japanese media reacted in unusually sharp manner. Asahi Shimbun wrote: “The government’s pledge to pull the plug on nuclear power by the 2030s could prove to be a hollow promise, with few details yet given on how to achieve it and how to reconcile contradictions along the way.” Uncertainties remain also over the future of the separation and use of plutonium. With nuclear power to be phased out, plutonium production at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility and plutonium fuel (MOX) production and use seems increasingly difficult to justify. In the meantime, Rokkasho operator Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL) that commissioning of the plant would be delayed again by a year to October 2013. The project is now about 15 years behind the original schedule and a factor of three over budget.

Pressure from industry and pro-nuclear prefectures seems to have effect. Education Minister Hirofumi Hirano stated on 18 September 2012: “We do not intend to make any big change the fast breeder reactor project.” One day later, the Cabinet failed to adopt the “Innovative Strategy” document, adopted by the Energy and Environment Council composed of several ministers, and released a very general statement instead. The same day Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a press conference (English excerpt here) that, in application of the 40-year rule, three reactors that have passed 40 years in operation (Tsuruga-1, Mihama-1 and -2) would be shut down. At the same time, Fujimura stated that three reactors that were under construction at the time of the Fukushima disaster [Editor’s Note: We had listed only Shimane-3 and Ohma and have taken them off the list in the latest edition of the Status Report], could resume construction, while nine others that were in the pipeline would be rejected.