Following the historic disaster at Fukushima nuclear power plant last year, the Japanese government is poised to completely shift its energy policy by phasing out its dependence on atomic energy by the 2030s.
Ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear emergency in March 2011 (the worst such calamity since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in Russia), the Japanese government has had to dramatically rethink its stance on nuclear energy.
On Thursday, a cabinet panel proposed a new energy plan that includes three main points: No new nuclear power plants will be built in Japan, all 50 current plants will be shut down within about 30 years, and existing reactors may be restarted only under new strict safety standards.
"Based on facing the reality of this grave accident [at Fukushima] and by learning lessons from the accident, the government has decided to review the national energy strategy from scratch," the panel said in a document.
"One of the key pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible."
Originally, nuclear power plants accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's total energy use, and the country had planned to expand that figure to 50 percent before the Fukushima incident.
However, shutting down all reactors would lead to a heavier reliance on imports, which Tokyo’s previous energy policy tried to avoid by expanding the use of nuclear energy. An island nation lacking sufficient fossil fuel reserves, Japan is already the third-largest oil consumer in the world, the largest liquefied natural gas importer and the second largest importer of coal.
Indeed, the government admitted that "the road to a nuclear-free society is not easy," forecasting economic growth at a modest rate of 0.8 percent annually under a nuclear-free scenario.
Ever since the government shut down all 50 nuclear power plants for careful inspection last year, the cost of electricity in Japan has spiked significantly. Only two power plants so far were restarted in June to prepare for the summer, when a power surge was anticipated.
At that time, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to restart the power plants caused widespread opposition among the public, who demanded the government move toward a nuclear-free environment.
While many people welcomed this policy change with respect to nuclear energy, some business interests fearful of high utility expenses have expressed grave concerns.
"There is no way we can accept this -- I cannot think this is technologically possible," Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Keidanren, (Japan Business Federation), told Agence France Presse.
"The plan is worth trying, but sooner or later it will be realized it isn't possible," Hirofumi Kawachi, an energy analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co., told Bloomberg. "To eliminate nuclear power by the 2030s will need breakthroughs in renewable and energy-efficient technologies."
The Kyodo News agency in Japan also expressed some doubts about the new plan, citing the fact that significant opposition from local governments and the business sectors may force the government to amend its energy policy.
There are also other problems unanswered by the plan.
For example, the government hasn't decided what to do about nuclear power plants now under construction, as National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa told reporters at a press conference in Tokyo.
Moreover, how will Japan minimize the environmental impact of the anticipated increased use of fossil fuels? Indeed, this new policy shift will complicate the nation's ongoing efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, the Noda administration has to take care of the various immediate concerns raised by Western nations that are associated with Japan's nuclear energy industry, such as the United States, Britain and France.
Britain and France both reprocess spent nuclear fuel for Japan -- they are worried about how Japan plans to handle the highly radioactive waste produced through this reprocessing if Japan were to halt the nuclear fuel recycling program.
U.S. officials have raised related concerns about Japan's national security.
Noda has attempted to placate these worries, saying that the nuclear-free objective is a long-term goal and that Japan will be flexible in dealing with these issues going forward.
Bloomberg reported that Japan plans to spend 38 trillion yen ($487 billion) on solar, wind and other types of renewable energy over the next two decades, another 84 trillion yen on energy-efficient technology and 6 trillion yen on co-generation systems.
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