Kishida turns Japan’s energy problems into a nuclear opportunity

In a 27-page document that accompanied Wednesday’s announcement of Japan’s biggest nuclear policy reversal in 11 years, the word “crisis” was used seven times.

The single word sums up why Prime Minister Fumio Kishida risked political capital to end a crippling that has plagued the country’s energy sector since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.

First, there is the global energy crisis and soaring commodity prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which have dealt a severe blow to a resource-poor country that imports most of its energy. Then there were the blackout alarms in Tokyo this year, which, coupled with rising electricity bills, dampened public opposition to restarting nuclear reactors. Nuclear power produced a third of the country’s electricity before Fukushima, but today only six of the 33 operational reactors are online.

Finally, there was also a sense of frustration, particularly among business leaders, that any promise to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was hopeless if the country continued to burn coal, natural gas and fuel oil to compensate for the loss of nuclear energy. .

“It was the perfect storm,” said George Borovas, nuclear practice manager at Hunton Andrews Kurth in Tokyo. “Sometimes in politics the best gift you can have is good timing. Kishida uses this good time to implement something that needs to happen.

The prime minister had already hinted several times throughout the year that the government would press ahead with nuclear restarts. But its sudden announcement to consider building new nuclear power plants – after repeatedly ignoring the possibility – came as a surprise.

The big political gamble also comes at a critical time for the Kishida administration. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings, which had remained stable since taking office last October, have fallen sharply in recent weeks after questionable links between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church emerged. came to light following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Energy security was not the only vulnerability exposed by the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion made Japan realize how ill-prepared it would be if an increasingly aggressive China made a similar move in Taiwan. Kishida will therefore have to juggle the challenge of rebuilding Japan’s stalled energy program while revamping its national security strategy for the first time in nearly a decade.

Analysts say a failure in either of these two elements of government policy would have a catastrophic impact on both Kishida’s administration and the country’s future. The challenge on both fronts is not small. There is still opposition and deep mistrust within local communities regarding nuclear restarts. When it comes to defense, how much Japan can actually increase its military spending — and how well it would use that money — is up for debate.

Whatever the risks associated with reviving nuclear power, the business community believes they are worth taking to improve Japan’s industrial competitiveness. The high costs of running domestic factories have long placed domestic manufacturers at a disadvantage against their German rivals. Japan’s nuclear industry, meanwhile, lost valuable know-how and engineers in the decade after Fukushima.

Basically, the tide has turned globally with a broader overhaul of nuclear strategy in Europe and the United States.

Hiroyuki Tezuka, a fellow at the International Institute of Environment and Economics, says Kishida might even make a nuclear restart a foreign policy issue. According to Tezuka’s estimates, if Japan restarted 27 nuclear reactors, the amount of natural gas it would not need to buy would amount to about 14% of the 155 billion cubic meters of gas that Europe would import from Russia in 2021. It would also release some natural resources for developing countries in Asia.

A successful nuclear restart could thus earn Japan’s international credit and also demonstrate that Tokyo can act decisively in the face of a political crisis. Failure to follow through, however, would damage not only Kishida’s credibility, but that of his nation. It is a bet the Prime Minister can ill afford to lose.

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