Can Solar Power Substitute Nuclear Energy in Japan's Future?

The Japanese government announced in April the approval of plans to release over 1 million tonnes of nuclear waste into the ocean. It’s no surprise news the treated radioactive water from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant—site of the 2011 disaster—would be dumped saw considerable criticism follow. But this event also drew attention once more to the wider debate that is occurring in Japan surrounding its energy future. One where it must transition away from fossil fuels, aspire to grow its renewables—but meantime reckons with the nuclear question.

Nuclear Tower and Solar Panel Arrays

Japan’s Updated 2030 Ambitions

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said in April his nation would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46 percent by 2030. This an increase from the previous target of 26 percent made in 2015.  Although this move quickly won Japan praise internationally, it appears the path to achieving this goal domestically will be profoundly challenging. There’s no question Japan must move away from coal, but debate rages over what energy source(s) to move forward with.

This is the case for numerous reasons. Detailing a complete picture of it first requires an overview of Japan’s wider national challenges. This is because these issues and opportunities form the backdrop of the Japanese government’s current perspective. And ultimately, based on the current state of affairs, for the nation to come anywhere close to success in reaching its 2030 target, it must also have a clear-eyed examination once more of substantial hurdles to its society’s ongoing prosperity.

The Decades-Long Quest to Revitalise the Japanese Economy

Though Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, it’s also dealing with an aging population, population decline, and—most substantially—the need to find a new economic narrative for its future that has eluded it for decades. The "three arrows" economics policy of the former Abe government (popularly known as "Abenomics") had some success. However, it failed to deliver the kind of clear-cut results that’d affirm the "lost decade" of Japan following its economic bubble bursting in the early 1990s—which has turned into lost decades—is truly over. The Suga government is not yet a year old, but expectations it’ll continue with Abenomics suggest a continuation of its results.

Furthermore, due to trends elsewhere in the international arena, it’s not simply a question of whether Japan can get back to its economic glory years, but how it can do so in a rapidly changing region and world. Yes, other economies have challenges like an aging population. But across Asia, Africa, and elsewhere there are economies that are growing rapidly and possess young populations.

Street View in Japan

Just like as Japan’s bubble showed, any presumptions nations like India or Indonesia will encounter no speed bumps on their path to being economic giants would be foolish. Nonetheless, all in the political class recognize Japan’s running out of time to find a formula that would see it retain in the future a similar economic standing to what it enjoys today. If accounting firm PWC is correct in its projection of the world’s top economies in 2050, Japan will have fallen from third to eighth by the middle of the century.

Effective energy policy serves as a central pillar for economic stability and growth. Japan certainly doesn’t have the luxury of 3 decades to crystallize one. Yet the key question for the national government at present is how it can form a policy with many voices advocating for radically different agendas.


The Tension Between Being Nuclear-Free and Carbon-Free

Before Prime Minister Suga announced the revision to Japan’s 2030 target, calculations were made surrounding Japan’s 2050 target for net-zero emissions. Reportedly, a widespread view that’s emerged out of discussions in Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry holds that the 2050 target could only be met by traveling a deeply contentious path—restarting almost every nuclear reactor in the nation that was put out of action following the Fukushima disaster.

Although the 2030 target will now demand adjustments to the existing policy, the prior plans made in recent times provide an insight into the complexity of the Japanese government’s path ahead. The energy plan the Cabinet adopted in 2018 aspired to see renewables provide up to 24% of Japan’s energy by 2030, and for nuclear to provide up to 22%. In December it said it was aiming to see up to 60% of power by 2050 come from renewables.

As Japan’s current use of renewables hovers around 20%, it could be said the 2030 target set prior was too modest, just as the 2050 target is indeed audacious. But given as of 2019 around 70% of Japan’s net electricity generation came via fossil fuels, there’s no doubt if the nation is truly intent on meeting its 2030 and 2050 goals the national government must make some decisive moves in energy policy.

For the Japanese government, utilizing nuclear offers it a path to pursue its 2030 and 2050 targets. At present, around just 6 percent of the energy generated in Japan comes from the nine nuclear reactors that are currently in operation across the country. In 2010 pre-Fukushima, 54 nuclear power plants in operation generated around 25 percent of Japanese electricity. Hence why the Japanese government feels a new embrace of nuclear power would make ticking the boxes on the 2030 and 2050 targets much easier.

But the problem with this approach resides with two groups. First, the Japanese public that‘s opposed to the ongoing use of nuclear (more on that in a moment). And second, advocates for renewables such as solar and wind—who of course make up numbers in the first group alongside possessing non-Japanese members—who feel the Japanese political class’ stance is short-sighted.

Can the Suga Government Quell the Public’s Nuclear Concerns?

According to contemporary data, the national government continually entertaining nuclear year after year post-Fukushima is deeply unpopular with the public. Yet it’s indeed true that post-war Japanese society has long had a complicated relationship with both nuclear technology and governmental authority.

For example, though the only nation to have ever had nuclear bombs used against it, it joined with other nations—including nuclear-armed nations the United States, Russia, China, and others—in opposing the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2020.

Fishes in the Ocean Might Carry Radioactive Elements From the Released Nuclear Waste From the Fukushima Nuclear Plant

In turn, the immense struggles Japan has been having in bringing COVID-19 under control owes in part to the reliance of Japanese politicians on a traditional cultural deference to authority embedded in their society. Instead of swiftly implementing lockdown laws and penalties like other nations, authorities looked first to a "cultural campaign" based on peer pressure and respect for authority to combat COVID-19, before eventually pursuing some stronger measures.

Since Fukushima, a majority of the Japanese public has come to favor the phasing out of nuclear power, even though many in the political class continue to support it fervently. This is a clear-cut example of a stark divide between politicians and their people. One unlikely to alter anytime soon. Thus, the national government faces an uphill battle in winning hearts and minds for an energy source that many Japanese feel has a risk that outweighs its rewards.

The Opposing Viewpoint to the Nuclear Opposition

For John Harries of the Australian Nuclear Association, the debate surrounding nuclear has a disconnect from the popularity of the technology.

“Nuclear power is a proven, reliable, large scale generator of very low carbon electricity in many countries where it plays an important role in reducing carbon emissions. There are about 440 reactors operating, with about 50 under construction in 16 countries”, says Mr. Harries.

“It makes a valuable contribution to the world’s low emissions energy supply and will continue to do so into the future.”

From Mr. Harries' perspective, a greater understanding of nuclear’s diverse capability would boost public support for it. “To achieve net-zero carbon emissions requires the use of a mix of low carbon sources of energy such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal and nuclear. Modern nuclear power plants can operate flexibly and follow load.”

“In addition, nuclear power plants can be used for other purposes, such as desalination, heat provision and making hydrogen. Including nuclear in the mix enhances the prospect of moving to net-zero carbon emissions.”


Finding a New Way Via Fukushima

There’s no disputing Mr. Harries makes a number of observations about nuclear which are both accurate, and key elements of why many Japanese politicians seek to argue nuclear is a viable option. But one of the greatest challenges for those politicos is the legacy of Fukushima itself in the Japanese consciousness. Not simply from a sentimental perspective but also from a physical one too given its renewable transformation in recent years.

Following the 2011 disaster, the prefecture committed to a substantial uptake of solar power. The local government wants the entire prefecture to run totally on renewable power by around 2040. Many tracts of farmland—which became unusable since the 2011 tragedy—have been slated for conversion to solar and wind sites. All up, over US$2.7 billion has been allocated for a plan that will see 11 solar farms, 10 wind farms, and completion date by 2024.

Solar Panel Arrays on a Green Field

The Fukushima government contends this new hub will be able to provide up to 14% of Japan’s energy by 2030. Advocates of renewables like solar say Fukushima is not simply a fantastic comeback story in the making—it’s a template for the future. For how Japan’s government could turn the page on the ongoing use of fossil fuels and nuclear power which does not enjoy public support, and shift towards renewable sources that can maintain ongoing public support.

A Clouded Future

It's of course necessary to acknowledge when looking decades ahead that the trajectory of Japanese energy policy could change, and change profoundly. At the time of writing, there’s no doubt the most urgent items on Japan’s agenda are bringing COVID-19 under control, and dealing with the hosting of Tokyo 2020.

But just as the pandemic has led to an unprecedented circumstance for an Olympic host nation, so too does the story of Fukushima—from its disaster through to its renewable rebirth—serve as a story without precedent. All can commend Japan’s recent upgrades of its 2030 and 2050 targets. It’s objectively true when examining it from a target-perspective exclusively, that utilizing nuclear presently offers a streamlined path to pursue those targets.

Nonetheless, it’s also true there’s a risk its increased and ongoing use could grow the odds of another disaster (or multiple) disasters along the way. Yes, it’s fair to note the risks of another Fukushima-like incident happening are low. Yet while the risks of a disaster are low with nuclear, they are ultimately non-existent with solar, and other renewable sources like wind.

In the minds of the Japanese public currently opposed to nuclear, that’s likely to be a decisive consideration, and will see the public persist in supporting other energy source(s). Ones that can help the nation meet its future targets, and move beyond the painful memories of the past.


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