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Nuclear reactor restarts likely as Cabinet OKs new energy plan

Cabinet members prepare to sit before a meeting on July 3. They approved the revised Basic Energy Plan during the meeting. (Takeshi Iwashita)

A new wave of nuclear reactor restarts became more likely as the government approved the new Basic Energy Plan on July 3, confirming that nuclear power will remain a key component of Japan’s energy strategy.

But by rubber-stamping the plan, the government also strengthened its commitment to giving renewables such as solar and wind power a major role in energy generation.

The latest Basic Energy Plan, which charts the nation’s mid- and long-term energy policy, marks the fifth in a series that is required by law to be reviewed about every three years.

The second plan to be revised under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated for the first time that the country will strive to make renewable energy a major power source, although it noted fluctuations in output due to weather conditions.

Renewables can become a viable source of a stable power supply when they are combined with rechargeable batteries and hydrogen, according to the plan.

The plan also maintained the reliance on coal-fired thermal power as a base-load energy source despite high emissions of carbon dioxide.

The Abe administration decided to promote nuclear energy when it revised the plan in 2014, reversing the policy of the previous government led by the then-Democratic Party of Japan, which pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2039 in the face of mounting public concern over the safety of nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Under the latest plan, the ratio of nuclear energy, renewables and coal thermal power in the nation’s overall energy as of fiscal 2030 will remain at 20-22 percent, 22-24 percent and 26 percent, respectively, in line with the government’s target set three years ago.

Experts say about 30 reactors need to be reactivated to achieve the 20-22 percent target, but only nine have gone back on line so far after they cleared the more stringent reactor regulations that took effect after the Fukushima accident.

The plan did not touch on the need for building a new nuclear plant in light of the widespread public opinion against nuclear energy. The last Basic Energy Plan did not mention the subject, either.

The latest plan re-endorsed using the nuclear fuel cycle, in which plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel at nuclear plants is used to generate power.

But the plan, noting calls from the United States, said that Japan “will make efforts to cut the stockpile of plutonium.”

Japan holds a total of 47 tons of plutonium, equivalent to 6,000 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs, a source of criticism from the United States and other countries.

The country has failed to reduce its plutonium stockpile due to little progress in the nuclear fuel cycle over decades.

The project to operate the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, the core part of the nuclear fuel cycle, rarely worked over 20 years due to numerous glitches. The government finally decided to pull the plug on it in 2016.

Burning a mixed oxide form of plutonium and uranium has not spread among conventional nuclear reactors, although it was considered a way to reduce the plutonium stockpile.

In its attempts to export nuclear plants, the country has hit major problems wherever it has pitched them.

But the government will maintain the export policy as a key component of the administration’s strategy for expanding the Japanese economy.

According to the Basic Energy Plan, “Japan is determined to make a positive contribution to enhancing the safety of nuclear energy and the peaceful use of nuclear energy” through exports of nuclear plants.

Source: The Asahi Shimbun