Japan Opts to Phase Out Nuclear Energy, Chooses Renewables Instead

In a rare move, where a country actually heeds the wishes of its citizens, Japan has reversed course – opting to phase out nuclear energy completely and to replace it with renewable energy.

Public aversion to nuclear since the Fukushima accident in March 2011 has proven to be too strong for Japan’s government to ignore.

Japan will have no nuclear power by the end of the 2030s, according to the new energy policy approved by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on September 14. The policy does call for idled reactors to restart during the wind-down period.

The policy calls for boosting renewable energy to 30% of the country’s energy mix through an investment of JPY 38 trillion ($487 billion) in renewable energy and more than double that in energy efficient technologies (JPY 84 trillion) over the next two decades.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan planned for nuclear to grow from 30% at that time to over 50%. 

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. 

"This is a strategy to create a new future," says the Japanese government in its policy statement on Friday when the decision was made. "It is not pie in the sky. It is a practical strategy."

Japan will phase out nuclear by imposing a 40-year limit on the lifetime of reactors – most will reach that limit during the 2030s. Most of the country’s reactors have been idle since the disaster, but Japan will allow those that pass safety tests to be restarted.

“The government’s strategy provides clarity for the business community that renewable power, not nuclear, is the future,” says Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan nuclear campaigner.

The new agenda reflects the wishes of more than 7.5 million Japanese citizens who signed petitions to end the use of nuclear power. In a series of town halls meetings held over the summer, where the government sought feedback on what its energy mix should be, 70% of the participants supported the option of ending nuclear.

“For too long Japan’s leaders have ignored their people and gambled the health, safety and economic stability of every citizen on nuclear power, and as the people of Fukushima continue to suffer, so does the rest of our country,” says Suzuki. “This announcement must become law, otherwise it will be seen as nothing but lip service to buy votes before the coming election.”

Business Opposition Expected

The new strategy already faces opposition from the business community, and is vulnerable to the upcoming election that isn’t likely to go well for the incumbent government.

The no-nuclear plan is likely to mean that four out of the 10 nuclear plant operators — Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co., Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Japan Atomic Power Co. — will become insolvent. Businesses also worry that embracing solar, wind and other renewable sources will double their electricity prices by 2030.

"To consider such an energy policy runs counter to a growth strategy," Hiromasa Yonekura, the chairman of the biggest business lobby Keidanren (which includes giants like Toyota Motor Corp.), told local reporters.

The government expects it will cost $622 billion to build a power grid around renewable energy, and its energy efficiency strategy targets 10% less consumtion than 2010 levels.

In the short term, the no-nuclear plan means greater reliance on fossil fuels: Japan is the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas and the third-largest purchaser of oil.

It also means that Japan will fail to meet its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Flurry of Renewables Development

Meanwhile, Japanese developers are rushing to fill the renewable energy void.

SB Energy, a subsidiary of Japan’s third-biggest mobile phone company, Softbank Corp., is planning Japan’s largest solar plant – 111 MW in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, due to start operations in 2014. 

Altogether, SB Energy has plans for 11 solar and wind plants for a total of 200 MW. The company is positioning itself to become Japan’s biggest wind power generator, with a new proposal for a 500-turbine farm on the island of Hokkaido.

In August, home developer West Holdings Corp. committed $1.3 billion to solar projects over the next five years.

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