Japan Flips Nuclear Policy, Proposes Building New Plants

Over a decade after the Fukushima disaster, Japan's government is once again ready to embrace nuclear power.

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Daniel Van Boom
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The Fukushima disaster of 2011 soured Japan on nuclear energy, leading the island nation to rely less on atomic power and more on imported fossil fuels. But with an intent to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Japan's government on Thursday announced a reversal on its nuclear strategy, according to the country's national broadcaster

The new policy is two-pronged: Firstly, it aims to extend the lifespan of Japan's existing nuclear fleet beyond the current limit of 60 years. Its second object is to build new next-generation plants. These new nuclear plants -- variously called "generation 4" or "small modular reactors" -- are designed to be cheaper to build and incapable of melting down. 

Last year China became the first country to connect one, a "pebble bed" reactor, to its energy grid. These reactors encase atomic fuel within graphite balls that can withstand more heat than nuclear fission is capable of generating, theoretically making a meltdown impossible. Similar plants are being developed in the US by a company called X-Energy. Meanwhile, Bill Gates-backed TerraPower is building one of its next-gen plants in Wyoming.

Though approved by a panel, the policy still needs to be submitted to Japan's Diet parliament. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's Liberal Democratic Party holds a majority in both of the Diet's two houses. 

The turnaround reflects a changing perception of nuclear power over the decades. Nuclear power is among the safest forms of power generation -- brown coal kills about 350 times as many people per terrawatt produced as nuclear, primarily through pollution -- but has been criticized for its impacts on local environments. As the threat of climate change looms larger, and governments attempt to live up to net-zero commitments, atomic energy has become more appealing. Building new plants is costly, especially so in the US due to a more complicated legal framework, but nuclear energy itself emits next to no carbon. 

In the decade prior to Fukushima, Japan was getting over 40 gigawatts of power from its nuclear plants, according to the World Nuclear Association. Following a decade of stripping back on the nuclear program, that had fallen to 18 gigawatts in 2021. The void left by nuclear energy was filled by gas and coal.

At its peak, at the turn of the century, nuclear energy was providing 30% of Japan's electricity. That's fallen to just below 7% in 2021. The strategy unveiled on Thursday is part of Japan's plan to have nuclear power account for 20% to 22% of its electricity mix by 2030.