NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION KEY TO JAPAN’S “CARBON NEUTRAL” DRIVE
As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepared for his April 16 summit with President Biden, there were reports that Biden’s special climate ambassador John Kerry would be making a visit to China. Ten days ago, when the summit was abruptly postponed by a week, there was speculation that Kerry would go to China prior to the summit to exchange views on climate change with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. Although not fully confirmed at the time, the news of Kerry’s imminent visit was not wide of the mark after all.
Xie is former head of the Chinese government’s climate team 2007-2018 who, among other things, contributed to the birth of the Paris Accord. He has recently been reinstated as China’s climate envoy, obviously viewed as Kerry’s most appropriate counterpart among its climate experts. Both of them are experts on climate change—battled-hardened international negotiators who have developed mutual respect over the years. Climate change constitutes a bargain on a grandiose scale—a fierce battle for economic security. In Japan, Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is responsible for this crucial portfolio.
Kerry and Xie have frequently been in touch with each other. It would be safe to assume that the US and China have been coordinating their “carbon neutral” strategies. Will Japan, sandwiched between the world’s two biggest economies, be able to come up with a solid decarbonization strategy that meets its national interests?
Koizumi is promoting the merits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of renewable energy. As is generally known, Japan hastily followed the US in announcing a plan to go carbon neutral by 2050, taking a step further on March 2 with the cabinet approving the necessary legislation. The international community may appreciate Japan’s resolve, but that itself will be rather meaningless. Nations will employ every tactic and strategy under the sun to outsmart each other as they endeavor to get the best of the bargain. Restricting itself by law will only narrow the span of Japan’s tactical and strategic options. The road ahead for Japan over the next ten years, and then over the next twenty years after that, is not likely to be straightforward. Needless to say, shrewd wheeling and dealing will be necessary to safeguard our critical domestic industries and national interests. I wonder if Koizumi is fully aware of this.
Koizumi’s Plan Will Ruin Japan’s Countryside
Koizumi’s father Junichiro, who was prime minister 2001-2006, asserts that renewable energy will be able to sustain all of Japan’s future electricity needs (The Tokyo Shimbun; May 13, 2018). And Koizumi Jr. favors increasing the ratio of renewable energy to 44%-48% from the current target of 22%-24%. He is also an environmentalist committed to reducing Japan’s dependency on nuclear power “to the maximum extent possible.” Let’s make a realistic assessment of his policy.
The energy study group of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately-financed think tank that I head in Tokyo, issued a policy proposal on April 12. The group is headed by Dr. Tadashi Narabayashi, a prominent reactor engineering specialist and specially appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. One of the points the group’s proposal emphasized is that Japan is already one of the world’s front runners in photovoltaic (PV) power generation.
China is the world’s leading installer of solar photovoltaics (205 GW), followed by the US (62.3GW), Japan (61.8GW), and Germany (49 GW).
In terms of installations per square meter of land area, the above numbers translate into 0.164 kilowatts per square meter for Japan, 0.021 kilowatts for China, and 0.007 kilowatts for the US. In other words, Japan has installed 8 times more solar photovoltaics per square meter than China and 23 times more than the US. This means that, despite its small land mass and limited flatlands, Japan is running on the cutting edge of PV power generation. Some quarters say Japan lags in the utilization of renewable energy, but they are mistaken. On the contrary, Japan is well ahead of the game as these numbers clearly demonstrate.
The JINF explored what specific measures would be necessary to realize the contention of Koizumi Sr. mentioned earlier. Let’s suppose Japan’s total energy consumption were to be supplemented by just solar and wind power. As regards solar power, about one third of the total land mass of Japan proper would have to be covered by solar panels. As for wind turbines, they would have to be set up in special offshore zones in virtually every area of the country.
What this scenario would mean is obvious: much of our green mountains, forests, and flatlands would disappear, covered by blankets of solar panels and there would be huge wind turbines in every nook and corner of our seas, the world’s sixth largest in area. The environment would be changed drastically. Our countryside across the archipelago would undergo a sea change, with much of our precious nature destroyed and the views of our beautiful landscape gone forever. Will the decarbonization scheme Koizumi Jr. advocates, which clearly is bound to ruin Japan, really be supported by the public? The idea that renewable energy will supplement 100% of Japan’s required electricity is itself an illusion.
There is another intriguing fact in the JINF proposal worth mentioning. That is, the afore-mentioned leaders of PV power generation—China, the US, Japan, and Germany—each registers a huge CO₂ emission coefficient, i.e., a numerical value indicating how much CO₂ is emitted per 1 kilowatt/hour (kWh) of electricity generated.
CO₂ emission for every kWh of electricity is: China (the world’s largest generator of solar energy) 720 grams; Japan, 540 grams; Germany, 472 grams (roughly equal to Russia); and the US, 400 grams. Among the nations emitting the least CO₂ are Norway, 13 grams; Switzerland, 42 grams; Sweden, 46 grams; and France, 70 grams.
Nuclear Technology 100% Homemade
There are good reasons why CO₂ emissions in the leading solar power nations are huge. As most of us are aware, renewable energy is susceptible to changing weather. When electricity from solar power generation suddenly drops sharply or is reduced to zero because the sun goes behind the clouds, the loss must instantly be supplemented. Utilities generally turn to thermal power generation as a supplementary power source. No wonder solar power nations continue to register huge CO₂ emission coefficients.
Meanwhile, CO₂ emissions in nations like Norway and France are low because they resort to hydro and nuclear power. This should be a great hint for Japan.
It is obvious that nuclear power must be part of any successful decarbonization policy for Japan. Utilization of nuclear power generation is a growing trend in many countries around the world. Japan should follow suit by all means. A sound energy policy should be the very foundation of every industrialized nation. If we commit a mistake at this juncture, Japan’s national power will be significantly reduced.
Public trust in the safety of nuclear power plants was absolutely lost following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima on March 11, 2011. But safety measures have since been greatly enhanced in Japan. The International Energy Agency in its latest report noted that nuclear power is the least expensive and most stable source of electricity for Japan.
Nuclear power generation greatly adds to Japan’s technological and industrial power. While most of the available renewable energy technology must be imported, Japan is 100% self-sufficient in nuclear technology. In that vein, nuclear power greatly contributes to domestic industries.
The JINF policy proposal concluded that Japan must proceed with an early resumption of nuclear power generation first and foremost in order to carry out its “carbon neutral” policy without fail. I would be most interested in the reader’s opinion.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 947 in the April 22, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)