After disaster, Japan might not live up to non-nuclear ideals
Japan is turning its back on nuclear power to become a leading proponent of renewable forms of energy. But there are also growing concerns that it may be harder for the country to relinquish nuclear power than was initially anticipated.
Before the radiation leak at the country's tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant earlier this year, Japan had been planning to build 13 new reactors to increase supply from 30 per cent of demand to 50 per cent by 2030. But the disaster has shattered Japanese voters' confidence in nuclear power as well as temporarily devastating the country's economy.
In his first speech to the nation, Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, vowed to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear power. He is following a strategy put in place by his now disgraced predecessor after the nuclear disaster.
"To build new reactors is unrealistic and we will decommission reactors at the end of their lifespans," the prime minister said.
However, he also sent out mixed signals that are causing concern among environmentalists, who had been hoping that Fukushima would represent a turning point for global attitudes to nuclear power.
Although he vowed to reduce the number of reactors, Mr Noda dashed hopes that the country might relinquish nuclear power entirely, saying: "But it is also impossible to immediately reduce our dependence to zero."
There are now rapidly growing fears of a re-emergence of Japan's pro-nuclear lobby as the country takes a cold, hard look at the potential financial costs of transferring to renewable forms of energy.
According to a study conducted by the Institute of Energy Economics for Japan and published last month, the cost of generating nuclear power in Japan is 50 per cent higher than Tokyo's last cost assessment in 2004 if compensation costs for the Fukushima disaster are included.
But the study added that nuclear power is still cheaper than fossil-fuel alternatives. It also reported that the cost of nuclear power has been stable over the past five years, while the cost of power from traditional fossil fuels has varied from nine yen (Dh0.43) to 12 yen, depending on import costs.
The study, therefore, potentially provides support for both the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies in Japan. There are also growing concerns that, while appearing to promote a short-term shift away from nuclear energy, the new Japanese government may fail to invest sufficient resources into the long-term adoption of renewable energy.
The country's solar-energy sector is initially expected to benefit from the shift away from nuclear energy because it is already an established technology that can be installed quickly on a relatively cost-effective basis.
Japan's trade minister, Banri Kaieda, last week told a parliamentary committee that the bill was expected to help solar capacity increase from its current level of 40 gigawatts (GW) to 100GW by 2015. Japan's panel sales last year totalled 992GW. This figure would need to grow roughly six-fold to cater for a 100GW industry.
However, Japan's domestic solar-power industry is too small to cater for this mushrooming demand and the country may have to import solar panels from other countries.
According to Kazumichi Ito, the general manager of environment and energy research at the Mitsubishi Research Institute, this would defeat Japan's objective of helping to promote the domestic development of renewable energy.
Mr Ito and others fear that, although the government has drafted a revised bill aiming to promote renewable energy for an initial three-year period, it may fall short of its original purpose of fostering renewable energy in the long run.
Japan could also struggle to develop its own solar-panel manufacturing industry in the face of growing competition from other countries, where wages and production costs are far cheaper. Solar-panel makers in developed markets such the US are already facing overwhelming competition from low-cost Chinese panel makers.
The Japanese government has also yet to clarify some crucial details concerning the switch over from nuclear power to renewable forms of energy, such as solar power. The price, for instance, that Japanese utilities will eventually pay for renewable energy is not expected to be decided until a government-appointed panel meets next year.
Japan's history of short-lived governments is also causing concern among the country's anti-nuclear lobby. It is feared that potential investors in nuclear energy might be deterred by the risk of a major shift in energy policy by a future government. The country's new rulings regarding renewable energy are due for review as early as next year, after the finalisation of a new plan for the adoption of renewable energy up until 2030.
Japan has a global reputation for ground-breaking technology and green investors around the world will be keeping a close watch on whether the country's new government will turn its back on nuclear power.
If it does, then other developed economies may also consider scaling back their own nuclear programmes, thus generating a growing global demand for sustainable energy.
Published: September 10, 2011 04:00 AM