Japan Bets on Nuclear, and Coal, for Future Power

Four years after Fukushima, Tokyo is angling to get nuclear reactors back online. But dirty old coal will be doing the real heavy lifting.


Japan has a new blueprint for its energy future, one that opens the door for a controversial return of nuclear power four years after the Fukushima accident took the country’s reactors offline. But even more noteworthy is that Japan now appears set to embrace a dominant role for dirty coal in the country’s energy mix for decades to come.

The plan, presented Tuesday, April 7, to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and expected to be finalized this spring, highlights the difficult choices that developing and even developed countries must make — just months before a landmark climate conference in Paris — between cheap but dirty energy and more expensive, if cleaner alternatives. Japan’s struggles are complicated further by the political fallout of Fukushima, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and has left a residue of radioactive soil and water.

Abe’s blueprint envisions stable, round-the-clock power sources such as nuclear, coal, and hydroelectric growing from about 40 percent of the electricity mix today to 60 percent in 2030. The rest of Japan’s electricity would come from natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar power, complemented by increasingly aggressive efforts to boost energy efficiency.

While there are no hard-and-fast targets yet for nuclear power in the new plan, officials say it would represent about 20 percent of the total — slightly more than the 15 percent that Abe had sought, but much less than the 30 percent of Japan’s electricity in the years before Fukushima. With all its reactors offline, Japan currently doesn’t get any electricity from nuclear power.

Hydroelectric and geothermal power — the clean, baseload sources of energy– will be hard-pressed to grow beyond 10 percent of the total. This means that coal will be the only baseload option left to power about 30 percent or more of the Japanese electricity sector, a significant uptick compared with the pre-Fukushima period and a stark contrast to other advanced economies, like the United States, that are trying to nudge polluting coal out of the energy mix.

“I think Japan is preoccupied with trying to survive economically in a world where carbon emissions are not priced and in a world where fossil fuels are cheap and abundant,” said Yvo de Boer, former head of the United Nations’ climate body and currently the director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute, in Seoul.

Coal accounted for about one-quarter of Japan’s electricity before the nuclear accident. Since then, Japan has increased the share of coal to about 30 percent and has massively ramped up imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to make up the shortfall left by the idled reactors. But importing LNG has been very expensive for Japan and has pushed the country into its first trade deficits in three decades. And even though LNG prices have declined lately, it is still more expensive than coal, which is at rock-bottom prices thanks to dwindling demand globally.

To be sure, Japan’s newfound bet on coal relies on cutting-edge technology. Japan has seven big, advanced coal-fired plants under construction, with more on the way, which will consume less fuel and offer greater efficiencies than other coal-fired plants. But none are being equipped to trap their greenhouse gas emissions. Advanced as they are, in other words, they are still coal-fired plants that will only make it harder for Japan to curb its greenhouse gas emissions in years to come.

What’s more, coal could play an even bigger role than the latest energy plan suggests.

That’s because getting nuclear energy back up to even 20 percent of the mix will be a tall order. Public opinion on both the left and the right has turned skeptical of nuclear energy since the accident. Questions linger about how to dispose of nuclear waste left behind at Fukushima and how soon idled reactors will be greenlighted for a restart.

With all those obstacles, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, nuclear prospects are less than stellar.

“If the government works very, very hard, perhaps 10 to 12 reactors will come back online. But that is one-fifth of what Japan had before 2011 and certainly not sufficient to provide 20 percent of Japan’s energy needs,” she said. Japan could turn back to imports of natural gas to make up the difference, and it has signed contracts for some of the first gas exports from the United States. And a continued push for renewable energy and greater efficiency could also help Japan meet its future needs, Smith said.

But even if regulators can get existing reactors approved and back online, many of them are due to retire by 2040 at the latest. This means that Japan would have to start a flurry of new reactor construction simply to keep nuclear energy in the mix after that date.

“The Japanese government faces a twofold challenge: How many reactors can they restart, and how many new ones can they build to start replacing those aging power plants?” said Jane Nakano, an energy and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Japan’s increased reliance on coal to 2030 and beyond contrasts with many European countries, which despite the global financial crisis and years of sluggish growth have continued to put the fight against climate change at the center of their energy policies. Japan, which has only once managed GDP growth above 2 percent in the last 15 years, needs to avoid excessive reliance on high-priced energy if it is to succeed in turning around the world’s third-largest economy. That is like many developing countries that continue to prioritize growth over the environment.

“In a sense Japan and India are in a similar place at the moment,” said de Boer. “From a short-term perspective, can you afford not to go for the cheapest energy technology available?”

Photo credit: JOEL ABROAD/Flickr

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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