The energy crisis aggravated by sanctions against Russia is breathing new life in Japan’s nuclear energy programme. For the first time since the Fukushima disaster, a majority of public opinion is in favour. Currently, three quarters of Japan's energy comes from imported fossil fuels. The safety of communities near nuclear plants remains a key issue.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – During his visit to London this week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke again about one of the hottest issues in Japanese politics of the last decade.
In talking about sanctions against Russia, Kishida expressed his renewed support for reopening nuclear power plants.
"We will utilise nuclear reactors with safety assurances to contribute to worldwide reduction of dependence on Russian energy," he said.
The issue of restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants has emerged more and more in recent months and it is not hard to understand why.
Since Japan shut down all of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, its energy dependence on imports has increased considerably.
Over three quarters of energy generated in Japan comes almost exclusively from imported fossil fuels, while only 18 per cent of output is based on renewable energy.
The few nuclear power plants reactivated in recent years meet only 3.9 per cent of the country’s energy needs.
As a result of the war in Ukraine, costs have spiked, including for liquefied natural gas of which Japan is the second largest importer in the world.
Last March saw a fourfold increase in the price of electricity on the wholesale market compared to last year, Asahi Shimbun reported.
Making matters worse, a lower yen against the dollar has made energy imports even more expensive.
Costs are not the only issue. Japan’s economy has been negatively impacted as electric power companies struggling with higher prices are forced to refuse new contracts.
In March, power outages and government calls for lower consumption highlighted the country's limited capacity to produce electricity.
After liberalising energy markets in 2016, Japan’s electricity companies closed less efficient plants but which were necessary to ensure extra production in times of need.
This reduced capacity became a problem in March, when a number of power plants were forced to shut down due to an earthquake and bad weather led to a sudden spike in consumption threatening to cause a blackout in some parts of the country.
For the past few weeks, Prime Minister Kishida has been trying to rally Japanese public opinion behind the need to return to nuclear power in order to have a reliable, safe and clean form of energy, with renewables and nuclear energy as part of the solution.
The energy plan the government approved last October to fight emissions includes 20 per cent from nuclear power by 2030.
To allay fears, Kishida said in a TV interview last week that, “We won’t compromise on safety” with respect to nuclear plants.
As the country’s next election approaches, the Japanese government intends to solve the problem of energy costs as soon as possible.
Timing is good. For the first time in a decade, opinion polls suggest that a majority of Japanese supports restarting nuclear power plants.
However, this requires overcoming some bureaucratic hurdles. The agency responsible for nuclear plants is an independent body, governed by safety criteria rather than political considerations.
The agency has been criticised for being overly cautious but the political responsibility of speeding up the re-commissioning of plants is still an extremely sensitive issue, with the safety of the communities located near power plants a key question that the government is perhaps not yet willing to address.