Japan No-Nuke Policy Less Firm, Renewables Still Charge Ahead

Japan is backpedeling on its historic commitment to phase out all nuclear plants by the 2030s, made just a week earlier – it’s new target is 2040 … maybe.

Last week, the cabinet approved the new energy policy, but the 2030s target was missing.

The change is the result of industry lobbying, which expressed fears of damage to the economy because of high fuel prices. Japan relies on imports for the vast majority of its fuel.

"Whether we can become nuclear free by the 2030s is not something to be achieved only with a decision by policy makers. It also depends on the will of (electricity) users, technological innovation and the environment for energy internationally in the next decade or two," Trade Minister Yukio Edano told Reuters.

The government is still committed to pushing the share of renewable energy to 30% of the mix.

Still, this policy could be changed again. The long phase-out period leaves it wide open to political winds, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his governing Democratic Party could well lose the next national election, which could be called within the next several months.

Just two of Japan’s nuclear 50 reactors are running – the rest are idled, but the plan is to re-start them after stronger safety checks are in place. The new policy retains the commitment to close all reactors when they reach a 40-year life, but now it says exemptions are possible . It also says no new nuclear plants will be built, but a decision hasn’t been made about those under construction when the meltdown occurred.

Japan’s No Nukes movement has soared since Fukushima, with mass marches frequently in the tens of thousands. 7.5 million Japanese citizens signed petitions to end the use of nuclear power. Despite dire industry predictions, Japan survived a nuke-free summer without blackouts.

For now, no one is satisfied – except the renewable energy industry. Anti-nuclear advocates say the policy is too vague and drawn out, and industry lobbyists call it unrealistic and unachievable.

Utilities would have losses of $56 billion if all the reactors were closed immediately, making at least four of them go bankrupt in a country that barely allows competition. They’re already saddled with high fuel prices from imports (and have raised customer prices) and want desperately to re-open the reactors. Closing reactors by 2040 gives them the lead time to develop renewable alternatives.

"They’re ignoring the terror that many of us feel toward nuclear power," Kumi Tomiyasu who works printing company and  attended a recent rally, told the NY Times. "By sticking with nuclear for so long, the government has put the interests of power companies and big business above those of the Japanese people."

Germany and Switzerland have opted for nuclear-free futures in much tighter time frames and Quebec just closed its sole nuclear plant. Even France is looking to cut nuclear in favor of renewables. 

Renewables Charge Again

In the meantime, developers are pushing renewable energy forward at breakneck speed.

Thanks to its renewable energy feed-in tariff, which became effective on July 1, Japan is quickly adding renewables. After just one month, 560 megawatts (MW) or 20% of the government’s target for the first nine months was achieved. $2 billion is already committed to development.

Japan is already the third largest country for installed solar capacity, with almost 5 gigawatts (GW) as of 2011, according to Japan Solar Power Sector Analysis. With 7% of the world’s solar capacity, it trails only Germany and Italy, but by a large margin.

This year, Japan should reach 10 GW of solar, according to Hiroshi Komiyama, chairman of Mitsubishi Research Institute, enough to supply 5% of the country’s homes – 2.7 million, reports Reuters.

We’ve written about SB Energy’s plans for solar (subsidiary of Japan’s third-biggest mobile phone company, Softbank Corp.), building a 111 MW plant, and in discussions to build a mammoth 340 MW plant.

Now, they are seeking approval for a 1 GW wind farm on the island of Hokkaido, where 500 turbines would supply 5.5 million people that live in Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

That would make SB Energy Japan’s biggest wind developer, a position held by Eurus Energy, which has about 500 MW  installed and 40 MW under construction.

Japan Mega Solar Co. plans to build 250 solar plants adding up to 500 MW), and geothermal and biomass will also grow.

The government estimates it will cost $640 billion to replace nuclear with renewables. In a July draft of its growth strategy revealed a plan to create a $628 billion market by 2020 through deregulation and subsidies for energy and low emission vehicles, according to Cleanbiz Asia.

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