In a major reversal, Japan is planning a big shift back to nuclear energy more than a decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster hurt public confidence in the safety of the zero-carbon power source.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday the government would consider building new nuclear power plants amid soaring fuel costs and pressure to cut carbon emissions. Japan has also planned to restart more nuclear reactors that were suspended after a mammoth tsunami inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011.
“The government will take the lead in various measures to restart our nuclear power plants,” Kishida said at a conference.
After the nuclear meltdown, Japan took most of its reactors offline and turned to coal and other fossil fuels to make up for the energy shortfall. Today, only five out of Japan’s 60 reactors are in operation, and the bulk of its energy comes from abroad.
But rising fuel prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a burgeoning pressure to meet its carbon emission goals have prompted Kishida to ponder a return to nuclear power.
In addition to building new reactors, Kishida said Wednesday he planned to restart up to 17 nuclear power plants by the summer of 2023.
Atomic energy now provides just 4 percent of the country’s electricity, from about 30 percent before 2011. In 2014, the Japanese government set a target to increase that number to 20 to 22 percent by 2030, a plan that was met with pushback from a public still wary of the consequences of a nuclear disaster.
But public sentiment toward nuclear power has recovered from a lull after the 2011 disaster. For the first time in over 10 years, polls conducted in March show that a majority of Japanese support restarting reactors.
Japan’s tight power supply was painfully felt this summer as unusually hot weather pushed electricity demand. To avert a power crunch, the government called on residents to conserve energy by not using household appliances unnecessarily.
The Fukushima accident dealt a blow to nuclear energy globally. Just months after the meltdown, Germany said it would phase out nuclear power by 2022 and shut down most of the country’s reactors. Several other European countries either halted plans for new plants or shut down existing reactors.
But the Ukraine war has proved to be a game-changer for nuclear energy.
Germany, which relied heavily on Russian exports for its energy, has been facing a fuel crisis and is now considering delaying the closure of nuclear power plants. In April, U.S. President Joe Biden launched a $6 billion credit program to aid nuclear power plants at risk of closing. In Asia, newly elected leaders of the Philippines and South Korea have also pushed to restart or build new nuclear plants to ease power shortages.
Japan hopes that nuclear power will help it reach its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, plans the prime minister outlined at the UN Climate Change Conference last fall. In the Wednesday meeting, Kishida told officials he wanted “concrete conclusions” by the end of this year on how plants can be restarted, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported.
Japan relies heavily on fossil fuels, more than 90 percent of which comes from four countries in the Middle East. Coal and liquified natural gas each make up about 25 percent of Japan’s energy mix.