December 8, 2023

Japan Scraps Plan for New Nuclear Plants

Mr. Kan’s announcement came as Japan allowed residents of evacuated areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to briefly revisit their homes for the first time since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March caused the nuclear accident.

Tuesday’s decision will abandon a plan that the Kan government released last year to build 14 more nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply to 50 percent. Japan currently has 54 reactors that before the earthquake produced 30 percent of its electricity.

The cancellation of the planned nuclear plants is the second time that Mr. Kan has suddenly announced big changes in Japanese nuclear policy without the usual endless committee meetings and media leaks that characterize the country’s consensus-driven decision making. Mr. Kan appears to be seeking a stronger leadership role after criticism of his government’s sometimes slow and indecisive handling of the Fukushima accident.

Last week, Mr. Kan asked a utility company to suspend operations at the Hamaoka nuclear plant, which sits atop an active earthquake fault line, about 120 miles southwest of Tokyo. After three days of delays, the company, Chubu Electric Power, finally agreed on Monday to shut down the plant until a new wave wall was built and other measures could be taken to strengthen it against earthquakes and tsunamis.

Mr. Kan said Japan would retain nuclear and fossil fuels as energy sources, but vowed to add two new pillars to Japan’s energy policy: renewable energy and conservation. While Japan has been a global leader in energy conservation, it lags behind the United States and Europe in adopting solar and wind power, and other new energy sources.

“We need to start from scratch,” Mr. Kan told reporters. “We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy.”

Mr. Kan had also previously called for Japan to sell its nuclear technology to emerging nations as a new source of export income. However, the Fukushima accident has prompted a global rethinking of nuclear energy and may drive customers away from Japanese suppliers to rivals in places like South Korea.

Mr. Kan also appeared to pull back from his earlier vows to remain committed to nuclear power. His apparent about-face may be driven partly by public opinion, which has soured on nuclear power since the Fukushima accident.

On Tuesday, Japan was reminded of the human costs of the disaster, when the first group of 92 people paid two-hour visits to their homes in the town of Kawauchi, within the 12-mile zone around the plant that was evacuated after the nuclear crisis.

The residents wore white anti-radiation clothing and traveled in buses under tight supervision by nuclear officials. They retrieved belongings such as photo albums and the small tablets traditionally used in Japan to honor dead relatives in household Buddhist shrines, according to local media reports.

The Kan government appeared to agonize for weeks over whether to allow even such brief trips. Officials were concerned about whether civilians could be kept safe from exposure to potentially high radiation doses around the plant.

Complicating their decision was the lack of scientific knowledge on the health effects of the radiation doses now seen in many of the evacuated areas. Some scientists say radiation levels even in many evacuated areas are too low to cause immediate illness while others worry that incidence of cancer could rise over the long term.

Last week, the government staged a trial run, in which officials played the role of returning residents, to see if the trips could be made safely, and within the time allotted. Screened for radiation on their return, those participating were found to have been exposed to a dose of up to 25 microsieverts during the two-hour visit.

That is well above the 3.8 microsieverts per hour that Japan has used in some cases as a threshold for deciding such safety issues as whether to allow children to play outside while at school.

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