Japan has effectively abandoned a commitment to end its reliance on nuclear power by 2040 amid pressure from the country’s business lobby, dropping a deadline recommended by a cabinet panel only days ago.
The cabinet on Tuesday gave only a vague endorsement of the panel’s report, released last Friday, and dropped any mention of plans to complete the phase-out some time in the 2030s.
The trade and industry minister, Yukio Edano, acknowledged that meeting the target date could prove impossible.
“Whether we can become nuclear free by the 2030s is not something to be achieved only with a decision by policy-makers,” he said. “It also depends on the will of [electricity] users, technological innovation and the environment for energy internationally in the next decade or two.”
The U-turn came after sustained pressure from business and industry leaders, who said the move would harm the economy by forcing firms to shift production overseas due to the high price of imported oil and gas.
The panel’s recommendation was based on a two-month public consultation on Japan’s future energy mix, in which the no-nuclear option proved far more popular than two other choices that involved a limited role for nuclear.
Instead, the cabinet said it would take the policy document “into consideration” and listen to the views of the public, the nuclear industry, businesses, and communities that depend on atomic facilities for jobs.
The energy review was ordered after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011 shook public confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants.
The deputy prime minister, Katsuya Okada, said ditching the deadline did not mean the government had abandoned its goal of a nuclear-free future.
“We aim to have zero nuclear power by the 2030s, but we have never said we will achieve zero by that date,” he told a group of European journalists. But he conceded that a nuclear phase-out was “the wish of a large number of Japanese people”.
Data released last month showed 90% of comments solicited from the public during the consultation favoured the abolition of nuclear power, while only 4% wanted it to remain part of the country’s future energy mix.
Okada said the government had to consider the rising cost of power production many predict will result from the phase-out and a greater dependence on fossil fuels, as well as their impact on Japan’s climate change commitments.
The report says Japan should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 20% from 1990 levels and to reduce energy consumption through greater efficiency by about 10% from 2010 levels.
The plan also calls for renewable energy to comprise about 30% of Japan’s future energy mix and the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels.
All but two of Japan’s nuclear 50 reactors have been shut down to undergo safety checks ordered after last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident for 25 years.
Two nuclear plants under construction have been given permission to restart; the 40-year limit on the lifetime of nuclear reactors means those plants could remain in operation until the early 2050s.
Japan depended on nuclear for about 30% of its electricity before the accident, and had plans to increase its share to 50%.
Anti-nuclear campaigners criticised the launch on Wednesday of a new nuclear regulatory authority, whose predecessor was blamed for being part of a culture that contributed to the Fukushima disaster.
Kazue Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan said that by appointing people to the body who were “heavily involved” in nuclear power generation, “the government is once again setting up the regulator for failure and endangering the health and safety of Japan’s people and its economy”.