Japan will need to move quickly to make headway on the steep emissions reductions that are required to achieve its recently announced ambition of reaching carbon-neutrality by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on 4 March in its latest in-depth review of the Japan’s energy policies.

Nearly a decade after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan has made real progress towards developing a more efficient, resilient and sustainable energy system, IEA said. It has embarked on major reforms of its energy market and diversified its energy mix. Energy-related CO2 emissions have fallen thanks to the expansion of renewable energy, the restart of some NPPs and energy efficiency gains. However reliance on fossil fuels still remains high at nearly 90% of energy supply. “Japan needs to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies, remove regulatory barriers and increase competition in its energy markets if it is to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050, said Dr IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. 

The 241-page report analyses Japan’s energy challenges and recommends possible solutions to help it achieve a secure, affordable and sustainable energy future. The report highlights Japan’s strong innovation and technology base. “I applaud Japan for its leadership in advancing low-carbon hydrogen and carbon-recycling technologies, which will be crucial for decarbonising sectors where emissions are hardest to reduce, such as long-distance transport and heavy industry,” Dr Birol said.

According to the report, “The gradual restart of nuclear power generation, expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency gains have reduced the need for imported fossil fuels, and contributed to a continuous decline in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions”. Achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050 “will require Japan to substantially accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies, address regulatory and institutional barriers, and further enhance competition in its energy markets”. It will also be important “to develop different decarbonisation scenarios, to prepare for the possibility that certain low-carbon technologies, such as nuclear, do not expand as quickly as hoped”.

Japan’s Green Growth Strategy of December 2020 aims to ensure a level playing field for Japanese companies vis-a-vis their foreign competitors. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, “requires steep emission reductions as early as possible and latest from 2030 onwards”. The 5th Strategic Energy Plan, adopted in 2018, targets a more diversified energy mix by 2030, with larger shares for renewable energy and nuclear restarts. It also aims to enhance the efficiency of fossil fuel use and to reduce energy demand.

The share of renewable energy in the total primary energy supply (TPES) is expected to reach 13% in 2030, up from 8% in 2019. Nuclear energy is expected to increase to at least 11% of TPES by 2030, up from 4% in 2019. This compares with 15% before 2011. IEA said the 2030 target is achievable if the number of operational reactors increases to at least 30. “That will require concerted efforts by the electricity utilities, government and regulators to satisfy enhanced safety standards, as well as extensive work with local communities to regain social acceptance.”

The report’s key recommendations are that Japan should:

  • Map out energy scenarios, including road maps, for achieving the 2050 decarbonisation goal;
  • Establish price signals to encourage investments in efficient andlow-carbon technologies;
  • Encourage investments to improve the electricity system to facilitate the cost-effective integration of larger shares of variable renewable electricity sources; and
  • Advance electricity and gas market reform and regulation.

Of the eight general energy policy recommendations, only one relates to nuclear , namely: Accelerate the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) safety reviews to facilitate prompt return to operation of Japan’s nuclear reactors to ensure the 2030 climate goals are achieved, while meeting high safety standards and public acceptance.

The 16-page chapter in nuclear energy notes that reactor restarts are facing significant implementation costs of up to $1 billion per unit and that the plant restarts have proceeded more slowly than anticipated “for a number of reasons, including additional changes in regulatory requirements”. After assessing the history and current state of the nuclear sector IEA said decommissioning “will be a major challenge” because “each utility appears to be planning to manage the completion of its decommissioning projects internally”. It said “realising the ambitious objective of 20-22% nuclear generation by 2030 will require a concentrated effort by all stakeholders”.

Another problem is “the deregulation and unbundling of the Japanese electricity markets” that is causing uncertainty in the future business model for NPPs, which are the most cost-effective when operated as baseload. The longer term evolution of the baseload markets, the capacity markets and the non-fossil fuel markets may impact the economic viability of NPPs going forward, “but the effects of these markets on economics and energy security are currently uncertain”.

Other possible difficulties are used fuel reprocessing, waste management, the continued clean-up of Fukushima and public opinion.

However, IEA noted that “Japan has developed a world-class nuclear sector, including industry, academia and research”. Despite the Fukushima accident, the Japanese nuclear sector “is well-regarded worldwide and there might be opportunities for the deployment of Japanese nuclear technology outside of the domestic market, including in newcomer countries”. It added that Japan’s nuclear industry “has been very open with the global nuclear community and has been keen to share best practices and lessons learnt from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident”.

IEA made six recommendations with respect to the nuclear industry. Japan should:

  • Invest the necessary resources to accelerate the safety reviews of nuclear reactors.
  • Make concerted efforts to promote the understanding of local communities to accelerate the restart of NPPs that comply with safety regulations.
  • Evaluate excluding from the 40-year licence period the time reactors remained idle pending regulatory review.
  • To speed up and rationalise decommissioning.
  • Invest in attracting new talent to nuclear careers to ensure timely regulatory reviews and restart of reactors as well as the long-term viability of the nuclear sector.
  • Continue progress in the decommissioning of the Fukushima site, economic recovery of the Fukushima area, and open exchange of information.