Japan’s drive towards a carbon neutrality climate target by 2050 could pave the door for the beleaguered nuclear industry to fire again, almost a decade after the Fukushima tragedy shut down most of the country’s reactors. Once the world’s third-largest user of nuclear electricity, almost 40% of the pre-2011 infrastructure is now being decommissioned by the utilities and the public remains deeply skeptical of the sector.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a significant shift in Japan’s climate change stance on Monday, unveiling the Net Zero Emissions Initiative in his first speech to Parliament since he became the leader last month. Specifically, he called for increased use of green energies and nuclear power.
A day after Suga’s announcement, Hiroshige Seko, a senior official in Japan’s ruling party and former Minister of Industry, called for the building of new nuclear power plants. Although a senior cabinet official subsequently hosed the notion, saying that Japan was not planning new facilities, but instead focused on making existing reactors safer, the wider line of policymakers indicates growing openness to the industry.
Nuclear and coal power has good support from Japan’s influential Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which prioritized reliable supply of energy to the export power industry. “METI has long been opposed to renewables and any enhanced climate target,” said Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, a former senior Japanese government official and chief negotiator on climate change.
Suga said Thursday that the government will leave all options available, including nuclear, green and coal, to meet the new goal. But with the blasts and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, the public is suspicious of nuclear power. The tragedy exposed significant gaps in the sector’s supervision and activities. The return to nuclear technology has been sluggish and fit as the current regulator is relocating plants and pushing for costly improvements. Nine are cleared to reopen, fewer than a third of Japan’s operational units.