Nuclear policy overhaul set; reactor cutback eyed in energy policy shift
The government will overhaul the nation's energy policy and probably cut back on its plan to build 16 to 20 new nuclear plants by fiscal 2010 in the wake of mounting opposition to such facilities and a fatal atomic accident last September, trade chief Takashi Fukaya said Friday.
The Ministry of International Trade and Industry will launch a comprehensive study to review the energy policy and the nation's long-term outlook on energy supply and demand, Fukaya told a regular news conference.
Fukaya quoted Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi as telling an informal Cabinet meeting earlier in the day: "I reckon it is imperative for the government to work as a whole to deal with energy from the supply-side as well as to make various efforts on the demand-side."
The trade chief had expressed MITI's intention during the Cabinet meeting and Obuchi called on his ministers to work together to reconstruct the new energy policy toward the 21st century, he said.
On the plan to build 16 to 20 new nuclear power plants by fiscal 2010, Fukaya said the government has no choice but to revise it now that the target appears hardly achievable.
Fukaya did not elaborate on any specific figure, but sources said the government is now mulling 13 as a new target.
While underlining the importance of nuclear power for Japan's energy strategy, however, Fukaya said the "circumstances are changing" following the devastating nuclear accident in September at an uranium-processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Some electric utilities are facing mounting opposition from people living in areas where new nuclear plants are planned in the wake of the accident.
Among them is Chubu Electric Power Co., which has abandoned plans to build two reactors along the Pacific coast near Ashihama, Mie Prefecture.
The antinuclear head of the municipal government of Maki, Niigata Prefecture, was re-elected in a local poll in January. Tohoku Electric Power Co. plans to build a nuclear power plant in the town.
With the cut to the construction program, the government plans to revise downward its projections for energy demand growth through fiscal 2010, on which it had devised the plan to build the 16 to 20 nuclear plants, the sources said.
The official demand projections were last revised in 1998 in response to the results of a U.N. conference on global warming in Kyoto in December 1997.
At the Kyoto meeting, Japan pledged to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent of its 1990 level by 2012. The construction of 16 to 20 nuclear power plants, which are free from greenhouse gas emissions, was perceived to be indispensable to achieving that goal.
In the previous estimate, the government projected Japan's annual energy consumption to shoot up to the equivalent of 400 million kiloliters of crude oil by fiscal 2010, up 1.8 percent from fiscal 1996 levels. The projection was based on the assumption that Japan's gross domestic product would expand by an average 2 percent per year through fiscal 2010.
Given the ongoing sluggish economy, such an assumption is no longer tenable, a senior official of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency said.
In fiscal 1998, Japan's total energy consumption dropped 1.1 percent, marking the first decrease in 16 years.
But Fukaya said the Japanese industry's energy saving efforts have been weak.
"We must drastically seek new energy sources and energy-saving measures," he said, noting that the recent surge in crude oil prices and the failure to renew Arabian Oil Co.'s concession in a major oil field in Saudi Arabia are also behind the government's policy shift.
MITI's Advisory Committee for Energy has been calling for boosting the ratio of nonfossil fuels in the primary energy demand from 15 percent to 26.8 percent by 2010, while forecasting that the primary energy demand will increase 1 percent a year from fiscal 2000.