Japan’s government said it intends to stop using nuclear power by the 2030s, marking a major shift from policy goals set before last year’s Fukushima disaster that sought to increase the share of atomic energy to more than half of electricity supply.
Japan joins countries such as Germany and Switzerland in turning away from nuclear power after last year’s earthquake unleashed a tsunami that swamped the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Japan was the third-biggest user of atomic energy before the disaster.
In abandoning atomic power, Japan aims to triple the share of renewable power to 30 percent of its energy mix, but will remain a top importer of oil, coal and gas for the foreseeable future.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s unpopular government, which could face an election this year, had faced intense lobbying from industries to maintain atomic energy and also concerns from its major ally, the US, which supplied it with nuclear technology in the 1950s.
“This is a strategy to create a new future,” a policy statement said, after key ministers finalized the decision yesterday. “It is not pie in the sky. It is a practical strategy.”
All but two of Japan’s nuclear 50 reactors are idled for safety checks and the government plans to allow restarts of units taken off line after the disaster if they are deemed safe by a new atomic regulator.
Japan’s growing anti-nuclear movement, which wants an immediate end to the use of atomic power, is certain to oppose any such proposal to secure electricity supplies by restarting reactors.
By applying a strict 40-year limit on the lifetime of reactors, most will be shut down by the 2030s.
A shift from nuclear means Japan should remain the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and third-largest purchaser of oil to feed its power stations. The company is also a major importer of coal and is likely to increase reliance on it.
The government estimated last week it will need to spend about ￥3.1 trillion (US$40.03 billion) more on fuel imports a year if it abandons nuclear power immediately.
Japan’s hunger for energy has helped sustain an investment boom in gas projects from Australia to new export terminals in the US, where a shale gas revolution is in full swing. LNG prices also soared earlier this year as Japan scoured the world for supplies.
The new policy was adopted 18 months after the earthquake and tsunami devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, triggering meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some 160,000 people to flee.
Tomoko Abe, an opposition lawmaker who heads a non-partisan group seeking to abandon atomic power, said the new strategy was lacking in key details.
“More than [a promise to] exit nuclear power in the 2030s, which is a long way away, what the people want to know is what they are going to do about restarting reactors,” Abe said.
The government’s strategy calls for a push to reduce energy consumption through efficiency and other measures to at least 10 percent less than 2010 levels.
Noda’s decision is unlikely to resolve fierce debate over whether reducing atomic power’s role will do more harm or good to the economy. And with Noda’s Democratic Party expected to lose the general election, there is no guarantee that the next government would stand by the policy.