Japan’s General Election and the Future of Decarbonization

As Japan heads to the polls to choose a new government, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition parties have positioned decarbonization as a key issue in their energy policies. While both camps support the use of renewable energy, the role of nuclear energy in Japan’s energy mix remains controversial, with the LDP and opposition standing on either side of the debate on nuclear power.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) latest draft of the Basic Energy Plan has suggested raising Japan’s share of nuclear energy and LDP Secretary General Amari Akira and Policy Research Affairs Council Chairman Takaichi Sanae have both mentioned the construction of new nuclear plants in the near future. A recent opinion poll placed environmental policy at the lower end of the election agenda suggesting public ambivalence toward the high stakes decision on nuclear power to achieve decarbonization. LDP victory in the lower house would set the direction of Japan’s energy policy and carbon neutral goal around nuclear energy.

When former prime minister Suga Yoshihide took office last October, he pledged to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in Japan to net zero by 2050. But in order to facilitate a transition to a carbon neutral economy, Japan would have to significantly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and supporters of nuclear power see this as an opportunity to recover their share in the energy business. They argue that renewable energy such as solar power is an unstable source of electricity and nuclear energy is the most cost-effective and sustainable path. Suga’s pledge has been inherited by newly elected LDP leader and current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio who is pushing to restart nuclear plants deemed safe as a way to curb Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), Japan’s largest opposition party, on the other hand, has pledged to achieve a carbon-neutral society by abandoning nuclear power in favor of renewables. 

In order to facilitate a transition to a carbon neutral economy, Japan needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and supporters of nuclear power see this as an opportunity to recover their share in the energy business

Nuclear power was introduced to Japan as “the dream energy source” in the 1950s. In an effort to promote nuclear energy, a so-called “nuclear village” was established by academics specializing in nuclear technology and businesses in need of cheap electricity. The government agencies in charge of this were the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and the Ministry of Education. Over the years, the nuclear village successfully established the perception of safety by emphasizing technological superiority and downplaying potential risks.

But the perception of safe nuclear power took a serious blow with the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. After the accident, all of Japan’s nuclear plants were shut down until 2014, and 21 nuclear reactors were decommissioned entirely. Currently, only nine reactors at five nuclear plants have been reactivated, which makes nuclear energy only 4.3 percent of Japan’s energy mix.

Under the Suga administration, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy under METI created a draft for the Sixth Basic Energy Plan in July 2021. The draft called for a 46 percent reduction of greenhouse-gas emission by 2030 as a way to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050. The share of fossil fuel energy must be decreased from 56 to 41 percent, while increasing the share of renewable energy to between 36 to 38 percent. In fiscal 2020 renewables made up roughly 20 percent of Japan’s electricity share. Meanwhile, METI has retained the share of nuclear energy at 20-22 percent as presented in the existing basic plan.

Yet the plan is inconsistent with a drive towards renewable energy. First, the ministry introduced a new scheme of the Balancing Capacity Market for electricity in July 2020, designed to offer subsidies to energy plants that can provide stable energy supplies both renewable and non-renewable. However, this market mechanism would discourage companies which promote renewable energy sources, and help extend reliance on inefficient coal-fired power plants, ultimately contradicting the basic principle of shifting towards a carbon neutral society. A task force appointed by Kono Taro in his capacity as minister for administrative reform along with four private sector experts on renewable energy held some 23 meetings, met METI officials and released their findings in December 2020, arguing that the electricity balance capacity market should be discontinued as it does not give top priority to renewable energy.

Following up on the task force’s findings, Kono repeatedly asked METI officials to discontinue or at least significantly modify the existing market mechanism, but the final draft of the proposed Basic Energy Plan made no mention of changing the market system, effectively ignoring the recommendations of the task force and the requests of Kono – who consequently told METI officials he would not sign the cabinet decision to approve the plan. However, a scandal later ensued with METI officials taping their conversation with Kono and leaking it to the tabloid magazine the Weekly Bunshun, where his comments were portrayed as power harassment just before the LDP presidential election in September.

The second problem with the proposed basic energy plan is inflexibility. Increasing the share of nuclear energy from its current level to 20-22 percent would require the construction of new reactors. While Kono asked METI officials to change the future share of renewable energy sources to “more than 36-38 percent” to reduce future reliance on nuclear energy, his suggestion was again ignored by METI.

The third problem is the nuclear fuel cycle plutonium-based program which has been under development for over a half century without producing a single kilowatt of electricity. The nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho on the coast of Aomori cost a hefty 2.3 trillion yen to construct, likely making it one of the most expensive plants in the world, but commercialization of the fast breeder has been delayed eight times and it is now scheduled to open in 2050. While many METI officials as far back as 2003 revealed that the Rokkasho plant would cost 19 trillion yen over 40-years to maintain and develop into a usable facility, the Basic Energy Plan still called for the program’s continuation.

Now that Suga has stepped down and with Kono no longer in the cabinet, Kishida is said to have approved METI’s proposed Basic Energy Plan during the general election campaign, signaling a return to nuclear power. While energy policy may not be first on the minds of most voters this weekend, it may mark a critical juncture in the future of Japan’s energy policy.

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