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A decade on from the Fukushima disaster, Japan may return to nuclear power amid soaring energy costs

August 24, 2022, 10:12 AM UTC
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida
Rodrigo Reyes Marin—Zuma Press/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Japan is planning a dramatic shift back to nuclear power more than a decade on from the Fukushima disaster, aiming to restart a sweep of idled reactors and to develop new plants using next-generation technologies. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday that the government will explore development and construction of new reactors as the country aims to avoid new strains on power grids that buckled under heavy demand this summer, and to curb the nation’s reliance on energy imports. The Nikkei newspaper reported the move ahead of Kishida’s formal announcement.

At the same time, Japan wants to restart seven more nuclear reactors from next summer onward, Kishida said at a government meeting on “green transformation.” That would bring the number of reactors brought back online after the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe to 17 out of a total 33 operable units.

“Nuclear power and renewables are essential to proceed with a green transformation,” Kishida said. “Russia’s invasion changed the global energy situation.”

Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s top utility and operator of an idled nuclear power plant in Niigata prefecture, rallied 10%, while reactor builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. jumped 6.9% and Japan Steel Works Ltd. rose 5.5%.

Kishida’s government has been considering a new expansion of nuclear power after struggling to contend with the impact of extreme weather and a global fuel shortage on electricity supply. The nation’s capital has seen two major power crunches this year, including during the worst heat wave for the end of June in more than a century.  

Countries around the world are revisiting atomic energy after Russia’s war in Ukraine upended fossil fuel markets and sent power bills surging, while public sentiment in Japan has been shifting in favor of turning idled plants back online. 

Efforts to advance smaller and cheaper nuclear technology, including small modular reactors — or SMRs — have also been accelerating as nations hunt for tools to tackle climate change. Nuclear capacity may need to double for nations to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century, according to the International Energy Agency.

To be sure, many of the idled reactors in Japan face enormous hurdles that are outside the control of the central government. Utilities must get approval from local municipalities ahead of restarting reactors, which can sometimes take years amid opposition in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Kishida also instructed officials to consider extending the lifespan of existing reactors beyond the current maximum of 60 years.

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