Nuclear Energy Nation Building? a policy critique Nuke Info Tokyo No. 114

On 31 May 2006 the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) released a “New National Energy Strategy”. This Strategy contains a new phrase, “Nuclear Energy National Building”. This phrase had not appeared before during the deliberations. The Strategy was agreed on by the General Council of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy1 (ACNRE) after just a few hearings. It gives the impression of being an integration of ACNRE’s deliberations, but at the time, the nuclear aspects were still being discussed by the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee. The secretariat of this subcommittee submitted a report in the form of a draft outline to the May 30th meeting of ACNRE’s General Council. This draft became the basis of the nuclear section of the new Strategy. The grandiose title, “Nuclear Energy National Building”, was added by the General Council.

Some members of the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee questioned the inclusion of a phrase which they had not discussed. It seemed that the phrase had disappeared, but it reappeared at the subcommittee’s next meeting (June 16th) as a subtitle, and from there the draft was put out for public comment. The Nuclear Energy Subcommittee didn’t formally agree to the document until August 8th. Thus, the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee didn’t call for public comments until after METI had released the Strategy. The order of events was back-to-front. It is a good illustration of how little importance is attached to the views of the general public.

Strategy without a strategy
So what are the contents of this “New National Energy Strategy”? The Strategy identifies the following objectives:

  1. Establish a guarantee of safe energy that the public can have confidence in;
  2. Establish a clean sustainable base by simultaneously solving both energy and environmental problems;
  3. Actively contribute to overcoming the energy problems of Asia and the whole world.

However, the report fails to fundamentally reconsider the developed world’s wasteful energy structure. Instead, it rehearses the old theme of “securing” energy. This type of strategy will not succeed in winning public confidence. Also, the report fails to fundamentally reinterpret the concept of growth. Rather, it talks about “sustainable growth”, emphasizing continual economic growth.

Fulfillment of these objectives is considered from the following three basic perspectives:

  1. Achieve the world’s most advanced energy demand and supply structure;
  2. Comprehensively strengthen resource diplomacy and energy and environmental cooperation;
  3. Perfect the emergency response strategy.

The report takes the view that a comprehensive strategy for securing resources is necessary, because in the near future demand will expand greatly, centered on India and China, and there will probably be a scramble for resources. However, at the same time, in its specifics it sticks firmly to a world order centered on America.

In order to achieve the world’s most advanced energy supply structure, it aims to achieve a 30% energy saving by 2030 through the introduction of an energy saving front-runner program. Aiming to achieve a mere one percent energy saving per year is much too conservative. Admittedly, Japan uses energy more efficiently than other countries, but a conservative program such as this indicates that the government is not really serious about saving energy.

The next-generation transportation energy program proposes to reduce dependence on oil to 80%. This is the first time a specific target has been adopted for the transportation sector. However, there is no reconsideration of the city transport system. Rather, the program clouds the issue by only proposing the use of biomass fuel in gasoline cars and the development and popularization of electric and fuel cell cars. No specific target is set for the new energy innovation program. The program doesn’t go beyond abstract expressions of encouragement.

Next comes the section on nuclear energy nation building. This is a confirmation of the existing policy2. In accordance with the existing policy, it aims to maintain or increase “the current level of nuclear power generation (30 to 40% of the total electricity generation) even after 2030.” Also in accordance with existing policy, it aims to “make systematic and comprehensive efforts on such issues as … the light water reactor nuclear fuel cycle and early commercialization of the fast breeder reactor (FBR), while at the same time promoting research and development into nuclear fusion energy technology.”

Generous support for nuclear energy
The Nuclear Energy Subcommittee’s report identified five basic policies.

  1. Establish a firm national strategy and a policy framework, which do not become “blurred by medium to long-term dramas”.
  2. Maintain “strategic flexibility” in regard to policies and timing, depending on international circumstances and technological trends.
  3. Deepen the constructive cooperative relationships between government, electricity enterprises and makers. To this end, achieve true communication and shared vision between the players. The government will show the broad direction and take the first step.
  4. Place importance on “individual regional policies” which are in line with national strategy.
  5. Maintain stable policies determined on the basis of “open and fair debate”.

It seems that the ten-year period since the introduction of liberalization into the electric power sector was a period when nuclear energy policy was “blurred”. It is hard to imagine that nuclear policy will develop as planned. However, the government has adopted a clear position of actively promoting nuclear energy in the context of liberalization of the electric power sector.

It had been predicted that as liberalization progressed nuclear energy would decline. Given the problems involved with finding new sites, it was thought that there would be no choice but to withdraw from nuclear power. This prediction seems to have been premature. Consequently, the role of the movement against nuclear energy has become even more important.

The following specific responses are developed in Section 3, “Current Situation, Issues and Future Responses”, of the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee’s report:

  1. Several measures to maintain or increase the current level of nuclear power generation (30 to 40% of the total electricity generation) even after 2030 (i.e. measures to ensure that plans to build new and replacement reactors are achieved);
  2. A rough plan for implementation of the FBR cycle from around 2050, along with a division of roles between the public and private sectors;
  3. A plan to foster the development of a labor force to sustain the required technology, including reprocessing technology;
  4. Policies to ensure that sites for nuclear facilities can be found;
  5. Public relations measures, including education for younger generations.

Considering the number of pages, there are surprisingly few specifics. However, because it is national policy, in the end specific details will be tied up with the funding. For example, it will be necessary to introduce a reserve fund system for interim storage of spent fuel. (If a decision is taken to proceed with a second reprocessing plant, presumably this will be the reprocessing fund.) Since initial investment for nuclear power plants will be very expensive, it will also be necessary to introduce a system of subsidies to ensure that construction of new plants, expanded plants and replacement reactors proceeds smoothly. Subsidies will also be needed for regions where nuclear facilities are sited. In addition, funding will be needed for universities to educate the work force. It is also proposed that consultation and research committees into commercialization of FBR be established. The idea is for public and private sectors to forge ahead united on this.

This is all very bold when the national finances are on the verge of bankruptcy, but how should we interpret it? It is true that the government is stepping forward to offer a helping hand to nuclear energy. With demand for nuclear construction in decline, it seems that the Strategy reflects a view that a certain amount of demand is needed in order to sustain the labor force and the technology of the nuclear plant makers. There is also the issue of the “understanding” of the regions, which became problematic after the Tokyo Electric Power Company scandal.

However, looked at from another angle, if demand for construction doesn’t materialize, all these plans are just scraps of paper. If one looks at the long-term plans of the power companies, under the influence of liberalization electricity demand from factories and the like is expected to remain the same or to decline, while demand for lighting and so on from general consumers is expected to increase. In other words, the power companies are depending on increased demand from general consumers. Illustrating the point, the power companies are promoting “all-electric” housing for all they are worth in order to increase demand.

In the end, if ordinary consumers don’t help out by consuming more electricity, it won’t be possible to build new nuclear reactors. The reactors that are being built now might be completed, but it will be difficult to proceed with those which are still in the planning stage. As long as the national plan has to be implemented by private enterprise, it will not be possible to keep building facilities for which there is no demand.

Hideyuki Ban (CNIC Co-Director)

1. The connections between the agencies and committees associated with METI are extremely difficult to understand. ACNRE is an advisory committee to the Minster for Economy Trade and Industry. The Nuclear Energy Subcommittee is part of ACNRE’s Electricity Industry Committee.
2. Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy, Japan Atomic Energy Commission, October 11, 2005

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