Japan signals return to nuclear power to stabilize energy supply

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan July 14, 2022. Xinhua/Zhang Xiaoyu/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

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TOKYO, Aug 24 (Reuters) – Japan will restart more idle nuclear power plants and consider developing next-generation reactors, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Wednesday, paving the way for a major shift in nuclear power policy a decade after the Fukushima disaster.

Kishida’s comments – who also said the government would consider extending the life of existing reactors – underscore how the Ukraine crisis and soaring energy costs have forced both a shift in public opinion and a revision of the policy towards nuclear energy.

Japan has kept most of its nuclear power plants idle in the decade since a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Earthquake-prone Japan has also said it will not build new reactors, so a change in that policy would be a stark reversal.

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Kishida told reporters he had asked officials to come up with concrete steps by the end of the year, including to “bring the public to understand” sustainable energy and nuclear power.

Government officials met on Wednesday to draw up a so-called “green transformation” plan to revamp the world’s third-largest economy to meet environmental goals. Nuclear power, which aroused deep public opposition after the Fukushima crisis, is now seen by some in government as part of this green transformation.

Public opinion also changed, as fuel prices rose and an early, hot summer boosted calls for energy conservation.

“This is the first step towards normalizing Japan’s energy policy,” said Jun Arima, project professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of public policy.

Japan needs nuclear energy because its grid is not connected to neighboring countries nor is it able to increase domestic fossil fuel production, he said.

Last month, the government said it hoped to restart more nuclear reactors in time to avoid any electricity crisis over the winter.

At the end of July, Japan had seven reactors in operation, with three others out of service due to maintenance work. Many more are still going through a license renewal process under tougher safety standards imposed after Fukushima.

Kishida also said the government would consider extending the life of existing reactors. Local media earlier reported that this could be done by not including the time reactors have been offline – years in some cases – when calculating their operating time.

Under current regulations, Japan dismantles plants after a predetermined period, which in many cases is 60 years.

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Reporting by Mayuko Sakoda and Yoshifumi Takemoto; additional reporting by Mariko Katsumura, David Dolan and Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Tom Hogue, Shri Navaratnam and Nick Macfie

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