Japan’s new minister for trade and industry: ‘no question’ nuclear important for baseload

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The newly appointed chief of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is expected to continue efforts to restart the country’s nuclear power generation, according to reports.

Japanese and international news outlets including Reuters reported that Yoichi Miyazawa, on taking office yesterday, told assembled news reporters that he was keen to visit the site of a nuclear reactor cleared to go back online. Miyazawa was quoted as saying that there is “no question that atomic power is an important baseload energy source for Japan’s future”. At present the country has suspended the use of more than 50 reactors in the wake of the crisis sparked by the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear accident. There has been no further clarity on the status of Japan's PV rollout which is on hiatus in some parts of the country.

The new minister also said that he was keen to visit Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyushu, to discuss the possibility of restarting Sendai nuclear power station with local officials and the public. Sendai was recently cleared to resume generation by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

Meanwhile, Kyushu Electric Power, the utility company that suspended the processing of applications for renewable energy facilities of over 10kW capacity, has resumed processing applications that were received prior to the 24 September suspension date. The company had previously cited imminent problems of insufficient grid capacity but posted on its site today that after studying the situation and the relatively low impact of the projects approved to date it will resume consideration of projects, although a suspension of new applications is thought to remain in place. A panel of experts appointed by the government to discuss the grid connection problems met for the first time last week.

Well-connected sources in Japan said it was no surprise that Miyazawa had made the pro-nuclear comments and said that it would conversely be surprising if a new METI minister had not made such views public. His address was otherwise written off as a ‘greeting’ and was not remarkable in tone or delivery, the source explained.

Miyazawa was appointed quickly in the wake of the resignation of his predecessor, Yuko Obuchi. The outgoing Obuchi was forced to step down after allegations of misuse of political funds by her staff, the UK’s BBC News reported. Incidentally, Obuchi’s resignation was followed hours later by that of the Justice Minister, another prominent female Japanese politician, Midori Matsushima.

Japan publicly updates its energy policy every three or four years, and the latest iteration of its Basic Energy Plan, approved in April this year, drew criticism from renewable energy advocates for turning its back on the country’s ‘no nuclear’ policy. The energy plan looks 20 years ahead. Additionally, while Japan maintains that it will seek to obtain 30% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, the plan omitted any clear targets for renewables in the run up to that ultimate goal.

Speaking to PV Tech’s sister publication Solar Business Focus in summer, Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF) advocacy group said that the general public in Japan still strongly supported the continued shutdown of the country’s nuclear generation capabilities. Ohbayashi questioned the democratic process and said that in many ways Japanese politics remains in thrall to pressure from heavy industry.

“Clear targets need setting to build up to ultimate goals. The return to nuclear hasn’t been set in stone and hasn’t happened yet, so we’d like to see clear and definite targets for renewable energy that give support and reassurance,” she said.

“The biggest problem in Japan is that the government’s actions don’t reflect voter behaviour at elections. Voter turnouts are very low, most of the votes are occupied by systematic votes, including those by labour unions. Of course the core of industries such as the Japan Economic Federation (JEF), the biggest voices and most influential members of those are in the power utilities, steel industry, car industry, chemical industry. Those four really support the restart of nuclear power, or they do not favour renewable energy production.”

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