Japan's Cabinet has formally adopted a policy approving the operation of nuclear reactors beyond their current 60-year limit. It also allows construction of new units to replace ageing ones in order to cut carbon emissions while ensuring energy security.

The government's "green transformation" policy features extensive use of nuclear power along with renewable energy and marks a major policy shift. Public sentiment turned against nuclear power as a national source of energy following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. The government had repeatedly subsequently given assurances that it was not considering building new reactors or replacing existing ones. In the wake of the accident, Japan decided that the life span of nuclear reactors should be 40 years, in principle, while allowing an extension of up to 20 years in some circumstances.

However, opinion has softened following the sharp rise in global energy prices caused by the sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its special military operation in Ukraine. This has affected the stable supply of energy for Japan, which relies heavily on fossil fuel imports, prompting a reconsideration of nuclear power. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida instructed the government in 2022 to look into ways to maximise the use of its nuclear energy facilities most effectively.

The Cabinet decision follows a meeting in late December, in which the policy was agreed, although the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently failed to come to a decision on the issue. Bills necessary to implement the new policy have been submitted to parliament.

The government also plans to raise about JPY20,000bn ($152bn) through the issue of green transformation bonds to boost investment in decarbonisation projects. It estimates public and private investment of over JPY150,000bn will be necessary over the next 10 years. The new policy will be implemented by excluding time spent on inspections and other offline periods from consideration when calculating the entire service life of a reactor.

Replacing old reactors with advanced ones, regarded as safer than conventional units, will be allowed only at existing NPP sites where units are destined for decommissioning. The government aims to begin operating next-generation reactors in the 2030s.

The new policy also makes central government responsible for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation. The issue has been a source of public concern and a challenge to advancing nuclear development.

Economy, Trade & Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a press conference after the Cabinet meeting that the government hopes to expand the areas where it will conduct a first-stage survey as part of the selection process for the final disposal site. The new policy stipulates government support for local governments which accept the survey. So far, the survey is underway only in two municipalities, both in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. It is based on documents and scientific data and includes dialogue with local representatives.

Image: Japan's Mihama nuclear power plant unit 3 (courtesy of Kyodo)