Japan is turning to more nuclear power – IEA says that’s good news

This image, from March 2022, shows wind turbines in front of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Japan. The country now plans to use more nuclear energy in the coming years.

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Japan’s plans to return to using more nuclear power have been welcomed by the International Energy Agency, with one of the organization’s directors telling CNBC it represents “a very good and encouraging news.

On Wednesday, the Japanese Prime Minister said his country restart more inactive nuclear power plants and examine the feasibility of developing next-generation reactors. Fumio Kishida’s comments, which were reported by Reuters, rely on the remarks he made back in May.

They come at a time when Japan – a major energy importer – is seeking to bolster its options amid continued uncertainty in global energy markets and the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” On Thursday morning, Keisuke Sadamori, director of the IEA’s office for energy markets and security, was positive about Japan’s strategy.

“This is… very good and encouraging news both in terms of energy supply security and climate change mitigation,” he said, adding that Japan had “burned a lot of fossil fuels in order to fill the void caused by the lack of nuclear energy since the Fukushima accident….”

Fossil fuel markets, especially natural gas markets, were “very tight”, Sadamori said, noting that this was particularly the case in Europe.

“This restart of Japanese nuclear power plants would be good in terms of freeing up a substantial amount[s] LNG to the global market,” he said.

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Sadamori, who previously held positions in Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and was an executive assistant to a former Japanese prime minister in 2011, was asked about the timeline for building new nuclear power plants.

New construction, he replied, would take a long time. “I understand that the announcement made by… Prime Minister Kishida yesterday focused more on new types of nuclear power plants, including SMRs – small modular reactors.”

“They are still, essentially, in the development phase, so … we need to accelerate those developments,” he added. The most significant aspects were, according to him, the restarting of existing plants and the extension of the life of existing plants.

A big change

If fully realized, Japan’s planned moves would represent a reversal of the country’s energy policy following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when a powerful earthquake and tsunami caused Japan’s nuclear power plant to collapse. by Fukushima Daiichi.

Given his recent history, IEA’s Sadamori was asked about the Japanese public’s current sentiment towards nuclear. “That’s the hardest part,” he said, adding that the Japanese people still have concerns about safety.

Citing Japan’s “difficult energy market situations” as well as “very tight electricity market”, Sadamori said public opinion in the country was “changing a bit nonetheless”.

“We see more and more people supporting the restart of nuclear power plants, based on … recent surveys by major Japanese newspapers,” he added.

“So I see things improving a bit, but I think the issue of public and local acceptance continues to be a very difficult part of restarting nuclear.”

The importance of public support is highlighted in a draft of Japan’s 6th Strategic Energy Plan. “The stable use of nuclear energy will be promoted based on the major principle that public confidence in nuclear energy should be won and safety should be guaranteed,” he said.

Japan is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. As part of an “ambitious outlook”, its strategic energy plan calls for renewables to make up 36% to 38% of its electricity generation mix in 2030, nuclear being responsible for 20% to 22%.

While Japan could refocus its attention on nuclear, the technology is not favored by all.

Critics include Greenpeace. “Nuclear power is touted as a solution to our energy problems, but in reality, building it is complex and extremely expensive,” the environmental organization’s website says.

“It also creates huge amounts of hazardous waste,” he adds. “Renewable energy is cheaper and can be installed quickly. Combined with battery storage, it can generate the energy we need and significantly reduce our emissions.”

During his interview with CNBC, Sadamori was asked why focusing on renewable sources and directing investment to those areas was less viable for Japan than going back to nuclear.

The country, he said, had “very ambitious programs for the expansion of renewable sources”. These included solar PV and wind, especially offshore wind.

While Europe had “massive” offshore wind resources, Japan was “less endowed with…good renewable sources in that regard.”

To that end, nuclear power, especially the active use of existing power plants, should be “a very important part” of the strategy to reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century.

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