Japan's government said it intends to stop using nuclear power by the 2030s, marking a major shift from policy goals set before last year's Fukushima disaster that sought to increase the share of atomic energy to more than half of electricity supply.
Japan joins countries such as Germany and Switzerland in turning away from nuclear power after last year's earthquake unleashed a tsunami that swamped the Fukushima No. 1 plant, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Japan was the third-biggest user of atomic energy before the disaster.
In abandoning atomic power, Japan aims to triple the share of renewable power to 30 percent of its energy mix, but will remain a top importer of oil, coal and gas for the foreseeable future.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's unpopular government, which could face an election this year, had faced intense lobbying from industries to maintain atomic energy and also concerns from its major ally, the United States, which supplied it with nuclear technology in the 1950s.
"This is a strategy to create a new future," a policy statement said, after key ministers finalized the decision on Sept. 14. "It is not pie in the sky. It is a practical strategy."
All but two of Japan's nuclear 50 reactors are idled for safety checks and the government plans to allow restarts of units taken off line after the disaster if they are deemed safe by a new atomic regulator.
Japan's growing anti-nuclear movement, which wants an immediate end to the use of atomic power, is certain to oppose any such proposal to secure electricity supplies by restarting reactors.
By applying a strict 40-year limit on the lifetime of reactors, most will be shut down by the 2030s.
LNG, COAL AND OIL IMPORTS
A shift from nuclear means Japan should remain the world's biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and third-largest purchaser of oil to feed its power stations. The company is also a major importer of coal and is likely to increase reliance on it.
The government estimated last week it will need to spend about 3.1 trillion yen ($40.03 billion) more on fuel imports a year if it abandons nuclear power immediately.
Japan's hunger for energy has helped sustain an investment boom in gas projects from Australia to new export terminals in the U.S., where a shale gas revolution is in full swing. LNG prices also soared earlier this year as Japan scoured the world for supplies.
The new policy was adopted 18 months after the earthquake and tsunami devastated Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant, triggering meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some 160,000 people to flee.
Tomoko Abe, an opposition lawmaker who heads a non-partisan group seeking to abandon atomic power, told Reuters the new strategy was lacking in key details.
"More than (a promise to) exit nuclear power in the 2030s, which is a long way away, what the people want to know is what they are going to do about restarting reactors," Abe said.
The government's strategy calls for a push to reduce energy consumption through efficiency and other measures to at least 10 percent less than 2010 levels.
Noda's decision is unlikely to resolve fierce debate over whether reducing atomic power's role will do more harm or good to the economy. Nuclear power provided 30 percent of Japan's electricity before the Fukushima disaster crippled the sector.
And with Noda's Democratic Party expected to lose the general election, there is no guarantee that the next government would stand by the policy.
COSTS OF ABANDONING NUCLEAR POWER
Japan's powerful business lobbies also argue that exiting nuclear energy in favor of fossil fuels and renewable sources such as solar and wind power will boost electricity prices, making industry uncompetitive and complicating efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The shift also threatens the financial viability of Japan's nuclear operators, which will be saddled with high decommissioning costs.
"To consider such an energy policy runs counter to a growth strategy," Hiromasa Yonekura, the chairman of the biggest business lobby, told reporters.
Anti-nuclear advocates counter that warnings of economic damage are exaggerated. They say the policy shift will create new openings for corporate profits in areas such as renewable energy that will spark innovation and give the economy a boost.
"A total exit from nuclear is positive for the economy, on balance," said Andrew Dewit, a professor at Rikkyo University who studies energy policy.
Surveys show that a majority of voters favor exiting nuclear power sooner or later.
Noda's decision to restart two units to avoid potential outages this summer galvanized anti-nuclear protests. Last week, the government ended voluntary power savings for parts of the country, with no blackouts during the hot summer months.
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