Five Years After Fukushima, Japan‘s Nuclear Future Looks Far From Certain

Despite the resolution of Shinzo Abe’s government to return nuclear energy to Japanese homes and businesses, the future of Japanese nuclear generation remains shrouded in uncertainty. Following complaints by local residents and subsequent decision by Otsu district court at the beginning of this month, two of the country‘s four restarted reactors will have to be closed due to posing a threat to the local population and the environment.

The rise and fall of the Japanese nuclear generation

Before 2011, Japan had one of the most diversified electricity generation mixes globally. None of the fuels accounted for more than one third of net generation and nuclear played an essential role, with 27% of the total. With 54 operating reactors and about 47GW of capacity the country was the third largest producer of nuclear power globally.

As the damage caused by the Tohoku tsunami in March 2011 resulted in nuclear meltdowns and a radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors. Even though 2012 saw a restart of two of Kansai Electric’s reactors, both were abruptly stopped in 2013. Since then no nuclear power was generated until August 2015, when Kyushu Electric Power restarted one of the two reactors at its Sendai plant, quickly followed by the second reactor at the same plant in October. January 2016 witnessed the return of the third reactor in the Kansai Electric-owned Takahama power plant, while the fourth was due to be restarted, when the decision of Otsu district court interrupted the relaunch.

Expensive electricity draws industry’s support for nuclear rerun

Shinzo Abe’s government considers nuclear power to be one of the pillars of Japan’s energy structure and a primary base-load electricity source, foreseeing it accounting for 20-22% of the total generation in 2030. After the nuclear shutdown, generation from other fuels, mainly natural gas and oil, greatly increased. In 2014, electricity volumes generated from natural gas were 38% higher, while from oil – 21% higher compared to 2010. Since Japan possesses only scarce hydrocarbon resources, additional spending on oil and gas imports greatly added to the costs of the electricity industry, reflecting in increasing electricity rates across the country.

During the 2011-2014 period, expenditure of the electricity industry on oil and gas rose at a CAGR of 13%, while electricity rates increased by 30% for industry and 20% for households, compared to 2010. Troubled by growing electricity costs, Japanese industry is strongly supporting the government, hoping to benefit from lower rates upon the return to action of nuclear facilities. According to a survey carried out by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in February 2015, 67% of Japanese small and medium enterprises reported struggling to afford electricity costs.

Negative public stance reduces the possibility of quick restart of nuclear plants

Even though household electricity rates have risen as well, according to the polls, about 70% of the Japanese population is against the renewal of nuclear generation. Being the only nation to have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons and to have been shattered by recent damage and wide scale displacement, Japanese people are strongly arguing for the nuclear-free future of their country. Government and electricity utilities, on the contrary, seem confident about the effectiveness of nuclear power plants. Increased security measures, including defences against earthquakes and tsunamis, promise a safer future for the Japanese population. However, large protests erupted with every restarted reactor. The decision by Otsu court means that nuclear resistance has also taken institutional forms.

Time works against the Japanese nuclear future

Promoted by the government and supported by industry, Japanese nuclear generation seems to have a good foundation for a wide scale return. The main challenge however, is to repair the damaged name and to improve the image of nuclear power, which will not be easy. Should the restart of reactors go slowly and controversially, as has been the case to date, higher prevalence and declining costs of safer alternatives, such as renewables, are likely to gain the upper hand in Japan.

In order to convince the population of the reliability and safety of nuclear power plants, the government needs to make sure necessary investment in the latest equipment is made. Currently however, the administration remains reserved over the modernisation of slowly aging Japanese nuclear facilities. In case the attitude changes and the reactor restarting process accelerates, Japan has every reason to operate a healthy and significant nuclear power industry, even though the government’s plans for 2030 remain a distant target. All in all, it is clear that five years after the Fukushima tragedy, Japan’s return to the ranks of nuclear powerhouses is still very much covered by shadows.