Climate Action

Japan wants to be carbon neutral by 2050. Here's what it will mean for nuclear energy

nuclea japan environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics Weather extreme storm hurricane typhoon flooding flood floods danger rain wind windy rainy flash floods Agriculture pollen insects bugs bees honeybees bumblebees farming farms crops crop stable A bee flies to collect pollen on a mustard field in front of the cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant near the South Bohemian city of Tyn nad Vltavou April 12, 2014. The Czech Republic wants to continue expanding nuclear energy capacity despite cancelling a tender to build two new units and believes the European Union should be more supportive of atomic power, Industry Minister Jan Mladek said April 14, 2014. Majority state-owned CEZ cancelled a tender last week to build two new 1,200 MW units at the Temelin nuclear power station. The move followed a sharp fall in European power prices, and the government's denial of price guarantees had made the $10-15 billion project uneconomical. In an interview, Mladek suggested that the best hope for the future expansion of nuclear power would be a shift in EU policy away from priority support for renewable energy towards more backing for the nuclear option. To match story CZECH-NUCLEAR/     Picture taken April 12, 2014. REUTERS/David W Cerny (CZECH REPUBLIC - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS ENERGY ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS) - GM1EA4E1UF001

Nuclear power is widely accepted as a key element of decarbonising energy. Image: REUTERS/David W Cerny

Aaron Sheldrick
Journalist, Reuters
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Japan

This article is part of: Race to Zero Dialogues
  • Japan has set itself the target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
  • The move could fire up Japan's nuclear industry, 10 years after the Fukushima disaster, which shut down most of the country’s reactors.
  • Before the disaster, 50 were in operation, and Japan was the third-largest consumer of nuclear in the world.
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has specifically flagged the greater use of renewable energy and nuclear power.

Japan’s move to embrace a climate target of carbon neutrality by 2050 could open the way for the beleaguered nuclear industry to fire up again, nearly a decade after the Fukushima disaster shut down most of the country’s reactors.

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Once the world’s third-largest user of nuclear energy, utilities are now decommissioning nearly 40% of the pre-2011 fleet and the public remains highly suspicious of the industry.

There are currently only two reactors operating, down from about 50 before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the meltdown in Fukushima.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga unveiled a major shift in Japan’s position on climate change on Monday, announcing the plan for net-zero emissions in his first address to parliament since becoming leader last month. He specifically flagged the greater use of renewable energy and nuclear power.

A day after Suga’s announcement, Hiroshige Seko, a senior official in Japan’s ruling party and former industry minister, called for new nuclear plants to be built.

While a senior Cabinet official subsequently hosed down that idea, saying Japan was not planning new plants but would instead focus on making the existing reactors safer, the broader line from policymakers suggests an increasing openness to the sector.

Nuclear and coal power has strong support from Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which has prioritised stable supplies of electricity for industry in the export powerhouse.

nuclea japan environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics Weather extreme storm hurricane typhoon flooding flood floods danger rain wind windy rainy flash floods Agriculture pollen insects bugs bees honeybees bumblebees farming farms crops crop stable
Following the 2011 Fukushima, use of nuclear energy in Japan dropped dramatically. Image: BP Statistical Review of Energy 2020.

“METI has long been opposed to renewables and to any enhanced climate target,” said Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, a former senior Japanese government official and chief climate change negotiator.

“It’s likely that the ministry has got a quid pro quo in getting more nuclear online for agreeing to the change, based on my experience in government,” he said.

Suga on Thursday said the government would keep all options open including nuclear, renewables and coal power to meet the new target.

But the public is wary of nuclear power after the explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station in 2011. The disaster highlighted major failings in oversight and operations in the sector.

The return of nuclear has been slow and fitful as a new regulator is relicensing reactors and calling for expensive upgrades. Nine have been cleared for restart, less than a third of Japan’s operable units.

“(Nuclear is) now explicitly emphasized as a key element of decarbonisation, in tandem with renewable energy,” Andrew DeWit, professor of energy policy at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

“Whether the industry can avoid pitfalls on the road to more restarts remains a question.”

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