The new Godzilla video game—the first to be released in over a decade—looks a bit different than the original 1954 film. It’s not just that the grainy, black-and-white veneer has been dropped for updated graphics; Godzilla’s iconic radiation affliction backstory has been dropped too.
The decision to abandon the atomic references occurs in the midst of increased Japanese wariness about nuclear energy: two-thirds of the country now opposes it, and for good reason. The nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, 2011, released immense amounts of radiation—the world’s worst nuclear accident since 1986’s meltdown at Chernobyl. Years later, nearly a quarter million Fukushima refugees are still living in temporary housing.
Despite public wariness, on July 20, Japan finalized a long-term energy plan that would raise the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power to 20–22 percent by 2030. Nuclear energy has long been a Japanese staple; before the incident at Fukushima, 30 percent of the country’s electricity was generated by nuclear reactors (compared to just under 20 percent in the United States and just over 10 percent worldwide). At the time, the government had plans to increase nuclear power generation to 50 percent by 2030, but the new goals are more modest, set back by the reality that, after the 2011 calamity, every plant in the country was forced to go offline.
After the nuclear industry’s hiatus began, the country scrambled to make up the difference with fossil fuels, particularly with coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG). In 2013, the share of electricity generation from these sources reached an apex at 87 percent; the new plan is supposed to reduce that to 56 percent. Since Japan currently ranks fourth in oil imports, that’s a big move. Thermal energy will be partially replaced by expanding renewables, particularly solar and wind, which currently make up 10–15 percent of Japan’s electricity generation. Those changes will be in addition to restarting nuclear power generation.
Currently, none of Japan’s forty-eight nuclear reactors are back in operation, although two reactors have passed a series of safety reviews and have been deemed ready for restart in August.
The million-dollar question is: Why would Japan scale up atomic power generation against public opinion, and on such an aggressive timeline? The answer: $8.78 trillion, the current total for Japan’s growing debt. Rising energy imports are straining the country’s budget, with $270 billion more spent importing fossil fuels in 2013 than in 2010. Additionally, utility costs increased for households and businesses by 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, from 2011 to 2014.
The Nuclear Problem
The new energy plan is supposed to resolve the problem by growing energy independence and lowering the cost of electricity generation—all while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent.
That sounds nice. Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic. Reuters reported Japan’s estimates for energy costs over the next fifteen years. But the government’s numbers seem off; a Japan Times headline, “Lowball nuclear pitch is fooling no one,” seems on point. Essentially, the problem is that the government’s estimates for the cost of nuclear power (¥10.1 trillion in 2030) are suspiciously marked “minimum,” and they don’t take into account costs like the ¥9.1 trillion involved in cleaning up Fukushima and paying associated damages. Neither do they take into consideration the additional cost of decommissioning reactors at Fukushima and other sites, for which current estimates range from ¥55-70 billion per reactor.
The new plan also requires either building new nuclear plants or extending the lives of current reactors, both lengthy and costly processes. Reopening reactors entails having them pass additional safety tests, which were redesigned by the Nuclear Regulation Authority after the 2011 meltdown. The unpopularity of nuclear power also poses a significant hurdle for companies seeking to put their plants back online.
Analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that, because of these difficulties and expenses, atomic energy will actually only provide around 10 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030, with 65 percent (instead of the government’s guess of 56 percent) of electricity generated by thermal sources like LNG. However, Japan may be relying on the United States to approve LNG exports, which is still some time off.
Nevertheless, the government seems to be committed to an upswing in nuclear power generation. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe called the proposal “an ambitious target which is no way inferior to other countries internationally”—an oddly defensive claim that comes in advance of November 2015’s international climate change conference in Paris (where Abe said, in the same meeting, he would “take a leadership role”). Japan also recently committed to a zero-carbon economy by the end of the century as part of the G-7 summit, although it pushed to keep the terms of the conference’s statement vague. But if Abe is serious about leading the fight against climate change, he may need to reconsider the current proposal—and, in particular, its balance of renewable energy resources.
A More Renewable Future?
Solar power is set to finally become commercially profitable in Japan, new solar energy plants are already in the works, and household solar costs have “more than halved since 2010.” Japan’s landmass problem (that is, it doesn’t have much), which has traditionally been considered a barrier for solar power, could partially be solved with new floating solar panels, which are already in use in the Hyogo prefecture. The country is also taking a spin with wind power; although there are more technical barriers, there has been investment in both onshore and offshore capabilities, and the industry is set to continue growing. The same Bloomberg analysis also predicts that solar and wind will make up a larger portion of Japan’s energy sources by 2030 than the government has estimated.
Curiously, Abe has said that Japan’s current energy plan “reflects…goals of lowering reliance on nuclear power as much as possible.” However, it seems that the prospects for a nuclear power resurgence in Japan are weaker than the government seems to hope. Instead, alternative renewable sources like solar and wind may be a better way to reduce reliance on expensive, imported fossil fuels.