As Japan Seeks to Develop Renewable Energy, Role of Nuclear Power Remains Uncertain

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Japan aims to increase its reliance on renewables to achieve net zero emissions, but nuclear power’s role appears to be elusive – even in the government’s energy plan approved by Cabinet about a week before the Sunday general elections.

The plan outlines ways to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 46% in fiscal year 2030 from levels in fiscal 2013, an ambitious leap by compared to the previous reduction target of 26%.

The government is aiming for renewables to account for 36-38 percent of Japan’s total power generation capacity in fiscal year 2030, more than double the 18 percent recorded in fiscal year 2019, while that the percentage of fossil fuel thermal energy has been reduced to 41.% from 76%.

But the percentage for nuclear remains unchanged at 20% to 22% compared to the previous plan, published in 2018.

The status of many nuclear power plants in 2030 and beyond is unclear given the facilities’ 40-year operating limit and other regulatory hurdles, and there has been no public consensus on the whether the country should continue to use nuclear power beyond 2050.

Yudai Maeda, an executive at renewable energy company afterFIT Co., said people’s emotional reactions to nuclear issues have eased somewhat since the years following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the pandemic has attracted the attention of many voters.

“The main issues in the election are more about how to restore the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maeda said.

A recent Kyodo News poll showed 36.7% will decide who to vote for in general elections based on economic policies, while 16.1% said coronavirus measures are paramount.

Tsutomu Miyasaka, professor of biomedical engineering at Toin University in Yokohama and a pioneering researcher on thin and flexible solar cells, also believes that energy and environmental issues should attract attention, just as climate change was one of the issues. keys for German voters in their election.

A United Nations Environment Program report released this week warned that the average global temperature could rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century despite various climate commitments and mitigation measures.

That’s well above the ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement – to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C this century compared to pre-industrial levels.

The international organization has also said that the world’s ability to meet the goal of averting a potential disaster depends on humanity’s efforts to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions over the next eight years. .

The zero net commitments, declared by 49 countries, including Japan, and the European Union could reduce another 0.5 degrees, if these commitments were strong and if the 2030 pledges were in line with the net zero commitments.

“Climate change is no longer a future problem. Now that’s a problem, ”said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, ahead of the upcoming UN climate change conference known as COP26. “Time is running out. “

To meet the 2030 emissions reduction target, Maeda said nuclear power plants are needed. However, Japanese political parties cannot agree on what to do with nuclear power plants even if they agree on the country’s direction towards carbon neutrality.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said his Liberal Democrats will restart unused nuclear power plants, provided they have adequate safety measures, in order to provide electricity stably and at a reasonable price.

In contrast, the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, is committed to abandoning nuclear power as soon as possible and will not allow the construction of new nuclear power plants.

The People’s Democratic Party, a smaller opposition party, has said it will restart nuclear power plants that have clarified safety rules but will not allow new ones to be built.

Following the nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami, most nuclear power plants in Japan remain offline under stricter safety regulations.

“In reality, I think (Japan) can’t help but rely heavily on nuclear and solar power to achieve this 2030 target,” said Maeda, a former foreign ministry official.

He stressed that nuclear should not be a long-term source of energy given the huge sums of money needed in the event of an accident and the falling costs of renewables.

In the long run, energy experts have high expectations for offshore wind.

“Producing large amounts of electricity from renewable energies requires a large amount of space. Since Japan is a maritime nation with the sixth largest exclusive economic zone in the world, it must be offshore wind, ”he said, adding that floating turbines would hold the key.

Solar cells produced by Miyasaka, also a member of the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, are expected to help improve the space problem for renewable energy if they overcome sustainability issues and enter into mass commercial production.

Miyasaka’s perovskite solar modules are thin, flexible and lightweight, yet capable of generating high voltages compared to silicon photovoltaic panels, their characteristics allowing them to be installed or applied on unconventional locations including roofs, windows and car bodies at low load.

In the not too distant future, Miyasaka believes that people will be able to generate electricity using perovskite solar modules on places such as balcony floors and car bodies, store it in batteries, and then l ‘use overnight.

In building such a society, Miyasaka said reliance on nuclear power could be reduced soon rather than later, as disaster-prone Japan faces higher risks than many other countries.

“It’s time for us to make a serious commitment to finding ways to live without nuclear power plants,” he said.

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