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In Japan, energy security fears put nuclear power back in favor

Japan is set to push for more nuclear power in an energy policy update due next year, seeking stable electricity supply in face of growing demand and heightening…


  • Jun 20 2024
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In Japan, energy security fears put nuclear power back in favor
In Japan, energy security fears put nuclear power back in favor

Japan is set to push for more nuclear power in an energy policy update due next year, seeking stable electricity supply in face of growing demand and heightening geopolitical risks, but is likely to struggle to meet its targets, industry experts say.

The country slashed reliance on nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and increased use of fossil fuels to generate 70% of its electricity, even as it set out to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

But having faced coal and gas price spikes and supply disruptions in 2022 due to Russia's war on Ukraine, the government wants to lock in greater use of nuclear energy, along with wind and solar power, to secure stable energy supply.

"The emphasis has moved away from carbon emissions to energy security. Energy security has always been important for Japan, but even more so now because there were so many challenges with the lack of liquefied natural gas, expensive LNG, lack of supply," said Alex Whitworth, vice president at consultants Wood Mackenzie.

Any shift to boost nuclear power by the world's second-biggest importer of LNG and a major buyer of thermal coal will hit exporters of those fossil fuels, including Australia, Qatar, the U.S. and Indonesia.

Discussions on Japan's energy policy, which is revised every three years, began last month. This is the first revision since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shifted the country's stance to favor nuclear power in 2022.

"The overwhelming majority of the members of the panel that debates the policy are pro-nuclear, and the new policy may include building new reactors," said Takeo Kikkawa, president of International University of Japan.

It is unclear how the 2030 energy mix target of 20%-22% nuclear will change for the next target year, likely 2040. But energy companies and industry are increasingly calling for greater use of nuclear power as geopolitical tensions raise the risk of energy supply disruptions and power price hikes.

"We seek clarification in the next energy plan on maximizing nuclear power use for energy security and decarbonization, and on the need to replace and build new reactors to meet rising electricity demand," said Kansai Electric Power, Japan's biggest operator of nuclear energy.

The government has said the country may have to expand power output by up to 50% by 2050 as demand rises from semiconductor manufacturing plants and data centers.

TOUGH TASK

Meeting growing electricity demand with nuclear power will be challenging, due to regulatory hurdles, public opposition, high costs, severe earthquakes and long development timeframes, academics and energy analysts said.

The country is likely to fall short of its 2030 target for nuclear power, reaching only 15% due to resistance from local residents and slow approvals by regulators for restarting existing reactors, Kikkawa said.

Adding new nuclear capacity could be difficult even by 2050, he said, given that in the past it has taken decades to build nuclear plants.

Thermal power would likely have to fill the supply gap, he and WoodMac's Whitworth said, contrary to the government's aim to cut coal- and LNG-fired generation to a combined 39% of the mix by 2030.

"The nuclear power target is the most unrealistic because it's actually outside of the government's control to be able to reach that target due to the need for getting local consent for restarts ... So there's a big upside for coal and gas," Whitworth said.

While revising energy policy, Japan plans to set a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2035 or later and formulate a decarbonization strategy for 2040 by early next year.

Accelerating renewables growth and reducing fossil fuel generation will help achieve those goals and lower prices.

"The Japanese economy has been hit hard by fossil fuel prices over the past two years," said Yukari Takamura, professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Future Initiatives.

Takamura, a member of the government's energy policy panel, says Japan should lay out a roadmap on how to phase out unabated coal-fired power plants.

"It's in the national interest to promote domestic production of energy with renewable energy," she said, adding it would improve the competitiveness of Japanese companies that are being measured on decarbonization factors.

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