Japan Bets on Nuclear, and Coal, for Future Power – by Keith Johnson (Foreign Policy – April 8, 2015)


Four years after Fukushima, Tokyo is angling to get nuclear reactors back online. But dirty old coal will be doing the real heavy lifting.

Japan has a new blueprint for its energy future, one that opens the door for a controversial return of nuclear power four years after the Fukushima accident took the country’s reactors offline. But even more noteworthy is that Japan now appears set to embrace a dominant role for dirty coal in the country’s energy mix for decades to come.

The plan, presented Tuesday, April 7, to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and expected to be finalized this spring, highlights the difficult choices that developing and even developed countries must make — just months before a landmark climate conference in Paris — between cheap but dirty energy and more expensive, if cleaner alternatives. Japan’s struggles are complicated further by the political fallout of Fukushima, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and has left a residue of radioactive soil and water.

Abe’s blueprint envisions stable, round-the-clock power sources such as nuclear, coal, and hydroelectric growing from about 40 percent of the electricity mix today to 60 percent in 2030. The rest of Japan’s electricity would come from natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar power, complemented by increasingly aggressive efforts to boost energy efficiency.

While there are no hard-and-fast targets yet for nuclear power in the new plan, officials say it would represent about 20 percent of the total — slightly more than the 15 percent that Abe had sought, but much less than the 30 percent of Japan’s electricity in the years before Fukushima. With all its reactors offline, Japan currently doesn’t get any electricity from nuclear power.

Hydroelectric and geothermal power — the clean, baseload sources of energy– will be hard-pressed to grow beyond 10 percent of the total. This means that coal will be the only baseload option left to power about 30 percent or more of the Japanese electricity sector, a significant uptick compared with the pre-Fukushima period and a stark contrast to other advanced economies, like the United States, that are trying to nudge polluting coal out of the energy mix.

“I think Japan is preoccupied with trying to survive economically in a world where carbon emissions are not priced and in a world where fossil fuels are cheap and abundant,” said Yvo de Boer, former head of the United Nations’ climate body and currently the director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute, in Seoul.

Coal accounted for about one-quarter of Japan’s electricity before the nuclear accident. Since then, Japan has increased the share of coal to about 30 percent and has massively ramped up imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to make up the shortfall left by the idled reactors. But importing LNG has been very expensive for Japan and has pushed the country into its first trade deficits in three decades. And even though LNG prices have declined lately, it is still more expensive than coal, which is at rock-bottom prices thanks to dwindling demand globally.

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