Japan's energy policy has drifted far from reality

The Asahi Shimbun, EDITORIAL: Review nuclear fuel cycle , January 31,2004

Original address: http://www.asahi.com/english/opinion/TKY200401310186.html

[Posted 02/02/2004]

The Atomic Energy Commission of Japan is the country's highest policy-making body regarding nuclear power policy. Four of its five commissioners, including the chairman, have recently changed. The new members face the test of whether they can produce a shift in Japan's nuclear energy policies, which are at a crossroads. The commission is indeed facing a test of its own reason for existence.

Japan's nuclear energy policies continue to veer further and further from reality. The government's long-term energy supply/demand outlook report has always come out with excessively high figures for nuclear power generation. Because the government's energy planning is based on these bloated figures, the country's energy policies as a whole have been warped.

The current plan is to ``build nine to 12 more nuclear reactors by 2010.'' But this is simply not possible. It was just last December that the construction plan for a nuclear power plant in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, was cancelled. It was a joint project involving three regional utilities, Kansai Electric Power Co., Chubu Electric Power Co. and Hokuriku Electric Power Co. Also in December, Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s plan for a nuclear plant in Maki, Niigata Prefecture, was scrapped. Construction of new plants is becoming increasingly difficult.

This is due not only to opposition to nuclear power plants, but also to business concerns, such as a slowdown in electricity demand. As deregulation of the electricity industry rapidly progresses along with technological improvements in energy resources such as fuel cells, the huge investments necessary for nuclear power plants are becoming extremely risky.

Because nuclear power generation produces no carbon dioxide, it helps curb global warming. But persisting in unrealistic construction plans for new plants may hamper the development of other policies to combat global warming, or to diversify energy resources.

What is necessary is to recognize the existing realities of today, and bring the scope and content of Japan's nuclear energy policies to a level that most people in the country can accept.

The review of the nuclear fuel cycle policy is one of the most pressing issues.

The current cycle plan to ``reprocess all the spent nuclear fuel, extract plutonium, and use that plutonium in fast-breeder reactors'' is based on policies created roughly 40 years ago.

But there is no prospect whatsoever for fast-breeder reactors to ever be actually utilized. The plutonium-thermal project has been put forward as a means to fill in the gap until the fast-breeder reactors arrive, but even the ``pluthermal'' project is having difficulty getting off the ground, due to resident opposition, high costs and other factors.

The Atomic Energy Commission will hold hearings to solicit opinions from various sectors on the nuclear fuel cycle policies and other nuclear energy issues. We urge the commission to coordinate the interests of the electricity companies with those of the local communities and seek a path that the entire society can agree upon.

One reason for the fixed nature of the government's nuclear power policies is the way the energy plans are constructed. The long-term energy supply/demand outlook report is created by the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, a committee that reports to the minister of economy, trade and industry. This advisory panel also determines the levels of nuclear power generation. The commission takes note of the advisory committee's report, and puts together the long-term plan for nuclear energy. It is a double-feature show with nobody certain who is in the lead; drastic policy shifts are difficult as a result, and stopgap measures are the only changes that get included.

But this year, the government's energy supply/demand outlook is up for revision, and changes to the long-term plan will get under way. It offers a good opportunity to overcome any bureaucratic sectionalism, grasp the entire picture and move on to create a pragmatic nuclear energy policy.

To that end, the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission both need to change. Otherwise, we need to consider the creation of a new forum to discuss a comprehensive energy policy.