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Japanese government approves nuclear restart

11 April 2014

The Japanese government has approved an energy plan that backs the use of nuclear power. The plan reverses an earlier decision to phase out nuclear power by a previous government following the Fukushima disaster three years ago. The decision sets the stage for the reactivation of nuclear power plants that have met tough new regulatory standards.

Stock image
Stock image

The 78-page plan maps out policies on the production and supply of nuclear power, clean energy and other sources and is based on the recommendations of a 15-member task force with a majority of academics.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power during the time of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster, had promised to phase out nuclear power.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to spend months convincing sceptical members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as coalition partner New Komeito, which opposes nuclear energy, to accept the final draft of the plan.

“Each energy source has its own characteristics and no energy source is perfect in terms of stable supply, cost, environmental impacts and safety,” Toshimitsu Motegi, the minister of economy, trade and industry, said at a news conference today after the approval. “We aim for an energy demand-supply structure that is realistic and well-balanced.”

Reuters says the plan may be too little, too late for Japan's “moribund” nuclear industry, facing estimated losses of almost $50 billion, with two utilities having been forced to ask the government for financial assistance last week.

Plant operators have had to pay out almost $90 billion on replacement fossil fuels, with domestic media saying they have also spent an estimated 1.6 trillion yen ($16 billion) on nuclear plant upgrades to meet new safety guidelines. Fossil fuels currently account for about 90% of Japan’s electricity generation, according to government figures.

Recent analysis by Reuters shows as many as two-thirds of the country's 48 idled nuclear reactors may have to be left closed because of the high cost of further upgrades, local opposition or seismic risks.

"The plan makes clear we will reduce reliance on nuclear power through a variety of measures," industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters after the cabinet meeting, adding that the government might decide on an ideal energy mix within two or three years.

Japan will do as much as possible to increase renewable energy supplies, Motegi said. The government has set up a ministerial level group to study boosting such energy sources.

Recent polls put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support. An Asahi newspaper poll last month found that nearly 80% of those surveyed supported a gradual exit from atomic power.

Abe's government has dropped plans to introduce a demonstration fast-breeder reactor in 2025 and a commercial reactor before 2050 after decades of delays at the Monju prototype reactor.

The energy plan unveiled on Friday said Monju would become an international research centre focused on reducing nuclear waste and toxicity. But the plan also says the government will continue workingon reprocessing nuclear fuel at the Rokkasho facility in northern Japan andmaintain storage facilities for used fuel.


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