Japan Reversing Its Nuclear Policy, Proposing to Build New Power Plants

2011 Fukushima disaster upsets Japan over nuclear powerThis causes the island nation to rely less on atomic power and more on imported fossil fuels. But with the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Japan’s government announced Thursday that it is backing out on its nuclear strategy, according to the country’s national broadcaster.

The new policy is twofold: First, it aims to extend the life of Japan’s current nuclear fleet beyond the current 60-year limit. Its second purpose is to build new generation facilities. Variously called “4th generation” or “small modular reactors,” these new nuclear power plants are designed to be cheaper to build and not melt down.

Last year, China became the first country to connect one, a “gravel bed” reactorto the energy grid. These reactors encapsulate atomic fuel in graphite balls, which can withstand more heat than nuclear fission can produce, theoretically making a meltdown impossible. Similar plants are being developed in the USA by a company called X-Energy. Meanwhile, Bill Gates-backed TerraPower is building one of its next-generation facilities in Wyoming.

Despite being approved by a panel, the policy still needs to be submitted to the Japan Diet parliament. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party has a majority in both houses of the House.

The comeback reflects the perception of nuclear power that has changed over the decades. Nuclear power is one of the safest forms of power generation – brown coal kills about 350 times as many people per terawatt as nuclear produced, mainly through pollution – but has been criticized for its effects on the local environment. Atomic energy has become more attractive as the threat of climate change appears greater and governments try to meet their net zero commitments. Building new facilities is costly, especially in the US because of a more complex legal framework, but nuclear power itself emits almost no carbon.

In the decade before Fukushima, Japan was receiving over 40 gigawatts of energy from its nuclear power plants, according to the World Nuclear Association. It was withdrawn ten years after the nuclear program dropped to 18 gigawatts in 2021. Gas and coal filled the vacuum left by nuclear energy.

At its peak at the turn of the century, nuclear power provided 30% of Japan’s electricity. This fell to just under 7% in 2021. The strategy, announced on Thursday, is part of Japan’s plan to make 20% to 22% of its electricity mix from nuclear power by 2030.

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