The Japanese government unveiled a plan today to phase out nuclear power over the next three decades, signaling a dramatic shift in energy policy 18 months after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The proposed policy calls for more reliance on renewable energy, greater conservation and sustainable use of fossil fuels, a move business leaders have argued would do more harm than good to Asia’s second largest economy.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, the nuclear-free decision finally put Japan “at the starting line.”
“This is a difficult issue, but we can no longer afford to postpone our decision,” Noda said in a cabinet meeting.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster last year prompted a review of Japan’s long-standing energy policy. The reactor meltdowns, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami, forced power companies to shut down all 50 of Japan’s reactors, an unprecedented move for a country that relied on nuclear power for one-third of its energy supply. Noda approved the restart of two reactors in July, to avoid power outages during the summer.
Restarting those two reactors prompted mass rallies by anti-nuclear activists, who demanded an end to Japan’s current policy.
“Based on facing the reality of this grave incident and by learning lessons from the accident, the government has decided to review the national energy strategy from scratch,” the policy document said. “One of the key pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible.”
The government plans to reach that goal by retiring aging reactors after 40 years and not replacing them. The proposal does not rule out the possibility of restarting the reactors if they pass strict safety tests and if they can win approval from a newly formed regulatory commission.
Japan’s powerful business lobbies have staunchly opposed a nuclear-free policy, saying it would hurt an already struggling economy, boost electricity prices and complicate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Oil and gas imports have already surged since the reactors went offline, swinging Japan’s trade balance into deficit, and the government has yet to decide how to cover the cost of expanding renewable energy, which accounts for just 1 percent of Japan’s current electricity supply.
To spur investment, Tokyo introduced a feed-in-tariff system this summer, requiring utility companies to purchase renewable energy at a higher cost, and pass that cost onto consumers. The government has also eased restrictions on land use for solar and wind power.