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Japan Makes Good on Goal to Restart Nuclear Plants

And they don’t plan on stopping

Last July, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida committed to restarting at least nine of the country’s remaining 33 operable nuclear reactors, in response to a clear demand for additional power capacity in the country. Before the end of the year, that goal was met. 

Japan had shuttered all of its reactors following the 2011 earthquake and the resultant nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. For years, there has been public fear surrounding the use of nuclear power in Japan. But that fear has been slowly lifting over time. Tight electricity markets last year did a lot to improve public willingness to utilize more nuclear power again. Amid the country’s hottest June on record, widespread blackouts were narrowly averted. 

Because Japan is an island nation without significant energy resources of its own, it has somewhat unique energy needs compared to other countries. Japan has a more precarious relationship with its power supply than countries that are mineral rich, or whose geographies allow for interconnections to other grids.

Because of this, the Japanese grid is incredibly reliant on imported liquid natural gas (LNG). Up until 2021, it was the world’s largest LNG importer. Recently though, competition for the limited LNG cargoes on the global market has grown much stiffer. In 2021, China surpassed Japan as the largest importer of these cargoes. Additionally, energy reliability issues in Europe and shifts away from Russian gas in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine have made that competition even more intense. In 2022, the European Union imported 39 billion cubic meters more LNG than it had the previous year.  In 2015, Japan was importing 93 percent of its energy supply. In 2010, before the reactor shutdowns, that figure had been 80 percent. All of this is to say that although LNG is a hyper-reliable fuel when available, Japan has been struggling to get enough of it on the world market to satisfy its energy needs.

In October 2022, Japan made good on the July goal, with 10 nuclear reactors back online. That leaves 23 reactors that are still capable of being restarted. (The country also has 27 permanently closed reactors). 

Restarting the idled reactors belongs to one prong of the country’s three-part nuclear strategy put forward by the GX implementation Council chaired by the Prime Minister.  The other portion of that prong is the extension of reactor lives beyond the current maximum of 60 years. The current system involves a 40-year license with the possibility of a 20-year extension. Draft legislation would replace this with reviews of plants occurring once a decade or less after the initial licensing period of 30 years.

The other two prongs involve developing and constructing new advanced reactor designs, and creating conditions conducive to further development of the country’s nuclear resources, including back-end and supply chain support. 

Japan appears to be recovering from the nuclear fear that arose in the wake of Fukushima, and the country now seems to be taking a more pragmatic approach to fulfilling its pressing energy needs. For a nation so cut off from outside energy sources, it is essential that it not squander its existing operable electricity capacity. Other countries, with Germany the foremost, have made different calculations regarding supply issues, and are currently reaping the energy insecurity that these decisions have sown. 

Paige Lambermont is a Research Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the Center for Energy and Environment. She covers the electrical grid, energy regulation, nuclear power issues, and other free-market energy topics. Paige has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from American University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Idaho. She is also a Columnist Fellow at Catalyst.
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