Tokyo Report | Environment | East Asia

Can Japan Be Both Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free?

Japan can – and should – pursue an energy mix that is both carbon-neutral and avoids reliance on nuclear energy.

Can Japan Be Both Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ 藤川広平

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, scheduled to have summit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden on April 16, has been pursuing a carbon-neutral society. On October 26, 2020, Suga delivered a policy speech to the Japanese parliament and declared that “by 2050 Japan will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero.” Internationally, the Paris Agreement entered in to effect in 2016, and Japan as a signatory to the treaty is obliged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming.

Japan has been under international fire on climate issues, as it is the world’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In an interview with Mainichi Shimbun on May 20, 2019, Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg criticized the fact that Japan had relied on coal-fired energy for more than 30 percent of its total amount of electricity, and planned to build and export new coal-fired plants. For this reason, Suga’s pledge to pursue a carbon-zero society was welcomed by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

According to a poll reported by Reuters on December 9, 2020 however, many Japanese companies were pessimistic about the feasibility of the government’s carbon-free goal. In its policy proposal of March 2021, the powerful Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) suggested that the government should rely on efficient coal-fired power generation and nuclear energy as well. Before the 2011 nuclear accident in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Japan operated as many as 54 nuclear power plants, but currently, only nine nuclear power plants are in operation. Keidanren proposed that about 30 nuclear power plants should be brought back online by 2030.

Does Japan really need to continue its reliance on nuclear energy as a means of achieving a carbon-neutral society? In exploring answers to this energy conundrum, it is important to look to the changes in nuclear power’s share of electricity generation in Japan. In 2010, the 54 nuclear power plants generated nearly 25 percent of the total amount of electricity produced in Japan. Presently however, the nine nuclear reactors in operation produce a mere 6 percent of the total electricity generated in Japan, indicating that Japan has successfully managed to deal with its electricity shortage without too much dependence on nuclear power in the past 10 years.

Likewise, public opinion about Japan’s nuclear energy policy needs to be taken into consideration. According to a survey by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 87 percent of respondents in 2010 agreed that nuclear power was necessary, but that the percentage plummeted to 24 percent in 2013, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In a 2019 survey, only 12 percent of respondents stated that nuclear power generation should be maintained or increased, whereas 60 percent replied that nuclear power should be phased out or abolished immediately. Clearly, a majority of the Japanese people do not support the reactivation of the existing nuclear power plants, much less construction of new ones.

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From a different viewpoint, Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy has military implications. U.S. Senator Edward Markey has pointed out the possibility of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia, warning that Japan’s stockpile of plutonium amounted to 48 tons as of 2017, which was nearly equal to the U.S. military’s stores and sufficient to create more than 6,000 nuclear warheads. Some experts, such as Professor Arima Tetsuo at Waseda University, have argued that the possession of a vast amount of plutonium – more than necessary for commercial use – symbolizes Japan is keeping opening the option to possess nuclear weapons. Paradoxically however, Tomas Kaberger, chair of the Executive Board of the Renewable Energy Institute, contended that nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants could be targeted in the event of armed attack, increasing Japan’s military vulnerability.

Although the Suga administration does not plan to build new nuclear reactors, the government would depend on nuclear energy to achieve the carbon-neutral goal. This is because most lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) insist on the necessity of nuclear energy, which is regarded as a rich source of political support. However, an increasing number of LDP politicians have been supportive of the gradual decommissioning of the nuclear power plants.

Akimoto Masatoshi, former parliamentary vice minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, is the most conspicuous LDP legislator advocating for decommissioning nuclear reactors in Japan. Akimoto, a key ally of Suga, has argued that it is possible to create a carbon-free society without nuclear reactors. Likewise, Kono Taro who has prime ministerial ambitions and serves as minister for administrative reform and regulatory reform, has been convinced that it is desirable for Japan to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy by facilitating the further introduction of renewable energy.

In the business community, major Japanese companies have attempted to overcome a pessimistic view on the feasibility of a carbon-zero society, and have changed their business strategies in order to keep pace with international competition. The Japan Climate Initiative (JCI), composed of 394 of Japan’s largest corporations, has decided to back Suga’s carbon-neutral vision. Japan’s leading trading companies, such as Marubeni and Itochu, will stop investing in coal mines and new coal-fired energy. Toshiba has already halted taking orders for new construction of coal-fired power plants. Toyota has swiftly moved to manufacture hydrogen fuel cell cars. As part of its green growth strategy, the Suga government aims to eliminate gasoline-powered vehicles in about 15 years, while invigorating its investment in the production of electric vehicles.

Furthermore, Japanese industries have been active in pursuing hydrogen as a promising source of clean energy. In February 2020, the world’s largest-class hydrogen production unit, the Fukushima Hydrogen Research Field, was established by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Toshiba, Tohoku Electric Power, and Iwatani Corporation. In addition, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries have strenuously promoted the realization of a hydrogen society. Kawasaki, for instance, unveiled the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier ship, the Suiso Frontier, in December 2019. The Suiso Frontier would be able to transport liquefied hydrogen cooled at -253 degrees Celsius from Australia to Japan in collaboration with Australia’s Fortescue Metals Group. Mitsubishi has tied up with major European companies, such as Swedish Vattenfall, German Wärme Hamburg, and Royal Dutch Shell, with a view to facilitating a green hydrogen project.

Without doubt, the landscape of international politics has been transforming in response to the global climate change and energy transformation, which will eventually change Japanese politics. On March 11, five former prime ministers – Hosokawa Morihiro, Murayama Tomiichi, Koizumi Junichiro, Hatoyama Yukio, and Kan Naoto – expressed a joint declaration calling for the Suga government’s policy shift toward a nuclear-free Japan. Learning from the lessons of Fukushima, Suga and candidates for future Japanese prime minister who share nuclear-free ideals, such as Kono Taro and Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro, are expected to take bold actions to transform Japan’s energy policy toward a carbon-free and nuclear-free Japan.