Anxiety over nuclear plant safety is driving Tokyo to rethink its earlier strategic energy plan which had envisaged, among other things, boosting the role of atomic power.

The accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which led to tens of thousands of people being evacuated from radiation-affected areas in the vicinity, has left its government on the horns of a dilemma. What role should nuclear energy play in the country's energy mix?

Japan has always been acutely conscious of its dependence on imported coal, oil and natural gas for meeting the country's energy requirements. Such fossil fuel imports still provide over 80 per cent of the energy demands of the world's third largest economy.

Before the powerful earthquake of March 11 and the resulting tsunami crippled four of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the country's 54 commercial nuclear reactors were generating about a quarter of the country's electricity.

Japan's strategic energy plan, which was revised last year, had aimed to slash fossil fuel imports; increase the efficiency of energy use in all sectors; and boost the contribution from renewable energy and nuclear power. Nine new nuclear reactors were to be added by 2020 and at least five more in the following decade, doubling the proportion of electricity derived from nuclear power.

But now, faced with a public anxious about the safety of nuclear power plants, the Japanese government is having to rethink that plan. The former Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, went to the extent of promising to “leave nuclear energy behind.” But that may not happen, at least not immediately.

At the end of August, Mr. Kan, who was criticised for mishandling the post-quake problems, stepped down as Prime Minister and was succeeded by his Finance Minister, Yoshihiko Noda.

Energy policy review

The current administration intended to undertake a “comprehensive energy policy review in this country,” said Noriyuki Shikata, Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations and Director of Global Communications at the Prime Minister's Office. He was speaking in Tokyo to a group of Asian journalists, including this correspondent, who had been invited by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Prime Minister Noda has been saying that, under the current circumstances, it would be very difficult to build new nuclear power plants, he noted. This would be reflected in the new energy policy that will be prepared by next summer. By spring next year, policy proposals would be made public so that the government could engage in consultations with stakeholders.

As for the three nuclear power plants under construction, the government would make a decision on a case-by-case basis in close consultation with the local municipalities, he said.

“But, as far as existing nuclear power plants are concerned, I think it is somewhat unrealistic to talk about abandoning all those nuclear power plants,” he observed. “We need to secure enough power in this country.”

Indeed, although Mr. Shikata did not explicitly say so, one immediate concern may well be to get more nuclear reactors up and running again as soon as possible. Currently, about three-quarters of the operational reactors have been shut down for maintenance, checks and the additional stress tests ordered by the government.

Till recently, only 10 of the country's commercial reactors were generating power. When a reactor at the Genkai plant in south-western Japan was restarted on November 1, it made news.

In Japan, while the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is the primary regulatory authority, the local government also has a say.

“We have de facto agreements in many cases between the Central government and the local municipalities,” Mr. Shikata explained to the visiting journalists. When new nuclear power plants were constructed, the Central government tended to come up with some sort of agreement with the local municipalities over the management of those plants. So there was “a kind of semi-legal requirement” to consult with local municipalities and get their approval.

These days, however, the local authorities are cautious about giving clearances to start operating nuclear plants. According to a report in The New York Times, the governor of the local prefecture dithered before finally allowing the reactor at Genkai to be restarted.

“If we suppose that many of the nuclear power plants would not be restarted, we would face rather serious power shortages,” warned Mr. Shikata. The gap, according to one simulation, could be as much as 10 per cent.

Regulatory framework

The Government is revamping the nuclear regulatory framework. Currently, the NISA comes under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, leading to criticism that the regulatory body is too close to the nuclear industry.

The NISA is to be merged with the Nuclear Safety Commission, a body under the Cabinet Office that develops guidelines and provides expert advice, and placed under the Ministry of the Environment, according to Mr. Shikata.

The challenge for the new energy policy will be to restructure the country's energy mix for the short-, medium- and long-term, he observed. Although, Japan was already one of the most energy-efficient countries, “we wish to go further.”

In addition, the government's policy was shifting towards more incentives for renewable energy technologies, he said. However, introducing renewable energy could take time and it was necessary to make sure that energy shortages did not develop in the process. Greater reliance on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, may be necessary in the short term.

Japan's business federation, Keidanren, had been making the case that unless there was a stable and not too expensive power supply available, it would be difficult to maintain the country's manufacturing base. The government did not want to see companies moving their operations overseas and “so this aspect also needs to be taken into account,” added Mr. Shikata.

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