This winter, Japan is once again asking households and businesses to conserve electricity as the country prepares for lower temperatures. “Warm biz,” the government’s latest campaign, encourages residents to dress warmly with jumpers and jackets in a bid to prevent power outages.
Last March, for the first time in seven years, residents were urged to reduce energy consumption amid global energy pressures and cold weather attributed to the La Nina weather phenomenon. By summer, Japan had narrowly avoided blackouts.
Despite a pledge to decarbonize the economy through renewables and the country’s centralized hydrogen energy strategy, Japan is returning to nuclear power in a bid to regain some energy independence. Nuclear power has traditionally been Japan’s low-carbon energy source. But in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, anti-nuclear sentiment took hold in Japan. In response, the government shut down all 54 nuclear reactors and began phasing out nuclear power from the overall energy mix. Currently, only nine are operational.
Rising energy costs have now prompted the government to extend the 60-year operating limit for nuclear reactors and develop next-generation reactors to replace them. In doing so, Japan is following the lead of Europe and the United States, which have extended the life of nuclear reactors as long as safety tests are passed.
According to Japan’s latest nuclear energy policy, “Nuclear energy plays an important role as a primary carbon-neutral energy source in achieving stable supply and carbon neutrality.” That signals a major shift in the nation’s mood toward nuclear energy.
Before the Fukushima nuclear accident, nuclear power accounted for 30% of Japan’s energy needs. As of March 2021, the share of nuclear power has fallen to just 3.9 percent. But the government is now seeking to increase the number to as much as 22 percent by 2030, which would require about 27 operating nuclear reactors. Next summer, the government aims to restart seven reactors. But some experts are skeptical that additional nuclear reactors will be able to pass more stringent safety tests by 2030. Meanwhile, construction of the next generation of nuclear reactors will begin in 2030, although it will likely be about 10 years before they are operational. Fully.
Japan walks an energy tightrope in the long and short term. In fiscal 2021, Japan’s energy self-sufficiency rate was 13.4 percent – lower than many other developed countries. Japan’s electricity reserve ratio, which refers to its surplus electricity, is expected to fall below the minimum 3 percent needed for a stable supply. This means that a small to medium sized thermal power plant can cause a power outage if demand exceeds supply.
While some experts believe that the promotion of nuclear power plants has become a barrier to the introduction of renewable energy, the government is also actively promoting the development of solar energy and offshore wind energy. It aims to double solar and wind power generation by 2030. Last year, the Tokyo metropolitan government announced mandatory solar panels for new homes built after fiscal 2025.
But the main hurdle is to manufacture commercially viable backup storage batteries. Japan’s mountainous terrain and limited exposure to the sun during the winter make batteries essential for expanding weather-dependent renewable energy sources.
Nuclear power plants and coal have been a constant source of primary energy. But in recent years, LNG power plants have not only supplemented the unstable sources of renewable energy, but also played a role as the primary energy source, making Japan more dependent on LNG imports. For many years, the price of LNG has been consistently low. But the supply of LNG has changed dramatically since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Japan relies on Russia for approximately 9% of its LNG imports. Its geographical proximity is an advantage since LNG can only be stored for two weeks and must be sourced continuously.
Japan has pinned its hopes on hydrogen as a clean, greener way to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. It has plans to establish Japan as a global hydrogen hub, but currently hydrogen energy is still much more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives. While hydrogen does not emit carbon dioxide when used as energy, it is referred to as an “energy carrier” since energy is required to produce it. Moreover, Japan’s vague definition of “clean” hydrogen also combines “blue” hydrogen energy—generated from fossil fuels—and “green” hydrogen derived from renewable sources. There are concerns that hydrogen energy could play a role in preserving fossil fuels.
Japan’s reduced energy supply capacity stems from the simultaneous exit of aging thermal power plants under the government’s strategy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and delays in restarting nuclear power plants. It is also a result of Japan’s push to liberalize its electric power industry and retail electricity sector following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. The entry of new energy suppliers has created a situation where it is cheaper for major power companies to obtain electricity from the retail market than to generate it.
With electricity rates at record levels, the government’s decision to revive nuclear power in its clean energy strategy is said to have been put in place in just four months. The move to replace aging reactors with new-generation models would commit the natural disaster-prone country to relying on nuclear power for generations to come, with limited debate about economic efficiency and public approval.