Japanese (non)decision on nuclear phase-out

Earthquake in Japan on March 11th, 2011

Earthquake in Japan on March 11th, 2011

It seems there has been some confusion around the Japanese decision (or non-decision) on the phase-out of nuclear last week.

Let me explain the story chronologically and give a few remarks related to climate policies.

I have to say at the beginning that the situation is very murky even to Japanese.

Energy and Environment Council

On 14th of September, the body called Energy and Environment Council was convened.  This is a governmental body which has been discussing energy strategies for the last one year or so.  The body is chaired by Minister of State for National Policy (Mr. Furukawa) and participated by other relevant ministers including Minister of the Environment and Minister of Trade, Economy and Industry (METI) but, this particular time, it was also joined by Prime Minister Noda, too.

The meeting adopted the Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment.  The Strategy is the one which says Japan will phaseout nuclear in 2030s.

Although the English version has not been yet uploaded, it will probably be uploaded to the following National Policy Unit’s website some time in the future:

Highlights of the Strategy are the following:

  • it “aims at realizing a society not dependent on nuclear” and says the government will “exert all policy resources for making it possible to stop the operation of all nuclear power plants before 2040 (in 2030s)”
  • it has lowered climate target for 2020, which is now 5-9% reduction below 1990 by 2020; this figure does not include sinks and offsets and nor is final.  However, it is almost certain that the target will be significantly lowered from the current 25% reduction target
  • RES electricity target of 300 TWh in 2030 (equivalent to 30% share of electricity generation in 2030)
  • For energy efficiency, it says Japan will reduce electricity consumption by 10% below 2010 by 2030 and will also reduce final energy consumption by 19% below 2010 by 2030.

Usually, this kind of joint ministerial level meeting’s decision is later adopted by the entire Cabinet and formalized as an administration’s official policy.

That was exactly what was supposed to happen on 19th of September and yet it didn’t go down that way.

An ambivalent cabinet decision

Due to the strong opposition from industry associations (three major associations held joint press conference to oppose the phase out on the day before the cabinet meeting), labor union groups (which happen to be the major constituencies for the current ruling party) and a few local governments which have been accepting nuclear (and subsides) as well as “interest” and “concern” shown by United States, the Prime Minister and some core ministers apparently decided to make the status of the document a bit more vague.

What happened was that the Cabinet did not adopt the Strategy per se.  Instead, it adopted a rather shorter statement which basically says the government “will implement the Strategy with continuous consideration and review” and annexed the Strategy to the statement.  This is something like “taking note” (I know this is a taboo for those who experienced Copenhagen) in a sense that the Strategy was not adopted by the entire cabinet but it was recognized by it.

This is very vague and is very hard to understand even to Japanese.

While the government and the relevant ministries at least will have some authorities to implement policies that lead to phasing out nuclear, the level of determination by the government to phase out nuclear got certainly weakened.  I believe what’s going to happen is that the government will pursue this very vague line further and keep things unclear so that they don’t invite ultimate rejection from both sides.

A few journalists said that the form of the decision made today was already planned as of last Friday, not because of the opposition from those stakeholders but I’m not sure what is the truth.

Besides, if the current ruling party, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) loses in the next election, the policy direction is likely to be changed as none of the next leader candidate for the major opposition party (Liberal Democratic Party) does not support the phase out at the moment.

You can certainly say this is one step further back from phasing out nuclear but it is not the complete withdrawal either.

Hope this clarifies the situation as much as it can….

A few remarks on the Strategy itself

  • I have grave concern about the lowered climate target given the fact that we are now talking about the huge “gap” at international level.
  • energy efficiency target should be higher; final energy consumption should be reduced by 30% below 2010 by 2030
  • although renewable target is higher than one in the current Basic Plan on Energy (20% of all electricity in 2030), it should be at least more than 35% (which is the highest figure that appeared in the government’s discussion process leading up to this Strategy decision)
  • further shift from coal and oil to gas should be assumed
  • more ambitious energy efficiency target, renewable target and gas shift could have kept the climate target higher than the indicated range.
  • it is good that the government finally indicated the direction towards phasing out all the nuclear power plants; however, the way it is described in the Strategy leaves some room for interpretation.  It should be “fixed” by, for example, legalizing the direction by revising the existing Basic Law on Nuclear or creating a new law.