This image, from March 2022, shows wind turbines in front of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The country now plans to use more nuclear energy in the coming years.
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Japanese plans to return to using more nuclear energy have been welcomed by the International Energy Agency, with one of the organization’s directors telling CNBC it was “very good and encouraging news.”
On Wednesday, Japan’s prime minister said his country would restart more shut down nuclear plants and explore the feasibility of developing next-gen reactors. Fumio Kishida’s comments, reported by Reuters, build on comments he made in May.
They come at a time when Japan – a major energy importer – is looking to bolster its options amid ongoing uncertainty in global energy markets and the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Keisuke Sadamori, director of the IEA’s energy markets and security office, was positive about Japan’s strategy in a speech to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” Thursday morning.
“This is … very good and encouraging news, both in terms of energy security and climate change mitigation,” he said, adding that Japan has “burned a lot of fossil fuels to fill the gap from the lack of nuclear power since the Fukushima accident….”
Fossil fuel markets, especially natural gas markets, were “very tight,” Sadamori explained, noting that this was especially the case in Europe.
“This restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants would be good to free up a substantial amount”[s] of LNG on the global market,” he said.
Sadamori, who previously held positions in Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and was an executive assistant to a previous Japanese prime minister in 2011, was asked about the timetable for building new nuclear power plants.
The new building, he replied, would take a long time. “I understand that the announcement by… Prime Minister Kishida yesterday was more focused on the new types of nuclear power plants, including SMRs – small modular reactors.”
“In fact, they are still in a development stage, so … we need to accelerate those developments,” he added. The most important aspects, he argued, were the restart of existing installations and the extension of the lifespan of existing installations.
A big shift
If fully realized, Japan’s planned measures would revolutionize the country’s energy policy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when a powerful earthquake and tsunami resulted in a meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Given recent history, Sadamori of the IEA was asked about current public opinion in Japan regarding nuclear energy. “That’s the hardest part,” he said, adding that the Japanese people were still concerned about security.
Citing “difficult situations in the energy market” and the “very tight electricity market in Japan”, Sadamori said public sentiment in the country was nevertheless “changing a bit”.
“We see more people supporting the restart of the nuclear power plants, based on … recent surveys by the major Japanese newspapers,” he added.
“So I think things are improving a little bit, but I think the… public, local acceptance issue still remains a very difficult part of the nuclear reboot.”
The importance of public support is emphasized in an outline of Japan’s Sixth Strategic Energy Plan. “Stable use of nuclear energy will be promoted based on the principle of building public confidence in nuclear energy and ensuring safety,” it said.
Japan aims for carbon neutrality by 2050. According to an “ambitious outlook”, its strategic energy plan foresees that renewable energy sources will account for 36% to 38% of its electricity production mix by 2030, with nuclear power accounting for 20% to 22%.
While Japan may turn its attention back to the nuclear field, this technology is not favored by everyone.
Critics include Greenpeace. “Nuclear power is being touted as a solution to our energy problems, but in reality it is complex and enormously expensive to build,” says the environmental organization’s website.
“It also creates huge amounts of hazardous waste,” it adds. “Renewable energy is cheaper and can be installed quickly. Together with battery storage, it can generate the power we need and reduce our emissions.”
During his interview with CNBC, Sadamori was asked why it was less feasible for Japan to focus on renewable resources and direct investment in such areas than to return to nuclear.
The country, he said, had “very ambitious renewable resource expansion programs”. These include photovoltaics and wind, especially offshore wind.
While Europe had “huge” offshore wind resources, Japan was “less endowed with…good renewable resources in that regard.”
To that end, nuclear energy, especially the active use of existing plants, should be “a very important part” of the strategy to reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century.