A Japanese Cabinet panel today endorsed a plan to end the use of nuclear power by sometime in the 2030s as part of a new energy policy that calls for emphasizing conservation and renewable energy sources. The new policy also calls for converting the Monju experimental fast breeder reactor into a test bed for treating nuclear waste. The plan calls for decommissioning the reactor once those studies are complete, but sets no date.
The government began reviewing its energy policy after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns and the release of massive amounts of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. An energy plan adopted in 2010 called for boosting reliance on nuclear power from about 30% to 45% of generating capacity by mid-century. Instead, the new policy calls for existing reactors to be shut down after 40 years of operation. Only two of the nation's 50 nuclear reactors are currently online; the rest await new safety checks and local and national approval to restart.
Business interests lobbied heavily against dropping the nuclear option entirely, warning of increased electricity costs that would damage Japan's economic competitiveness. There are also concerns that renewable options can't be ramped up quickly enough to fill the gap and that reliance on fossil fuels will mean missing emissions reduction targets. But public opinion hardened against nuclear power as a series of investigations concluded that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Fukushima plant operator, had been complacent about safety, ignored warnings of vulnerability to natural disasters, and covered up problems—all while the nuclear regulatory agency looked the other way. Polls show a clear majority want the nation to go nuclear-free, either immediately or gradually. And throughout the summer, increasing numbers of citizens have turned out for regular Friday evening antinuclear protests outside the prime minister's residence.
The decision to phase out nuclear power "is regrettable," says Satoru Tanaka, a University of Tokyo nuclear engineer and former president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan. He says the policy's impact on research is not yet clear. He and his colleagues would like to continue working on advanced, safer reactors. But he admits bringing them into service "would require convincing the public of their safety."
The entire Cabinet is expected to review the new policy for formal approval in the near future. But in another twist, the currently ruling Democratic Party of Japan is likely to be voted out of office before the end of the year. It is possible the likely winners, the Liberal Democratic Party, could reconsider the policy.