Japan panel calls for phasing out nuclear power by 2030s

TOKYO – A Japanese cabinet panel called Friday for phasing out of nuclear power over the next three decades as part of an overhaul of the country’s energy policy following the Fukushima meltdowns.

The proposed new energy policy is a major shift from Japan’s decades-long advocacy of nuclear power. It calls for greater reliance on renewable energy, more conservation and sustainable use of fossil fuels.

Approving the new policy requires the approval of the entire cabinet. Japanese news reports say the Cabinet has already agreed to the new policy.

Japan began reviewing its energy policy following last year’s disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which was set off by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Before the accident, resource-poor Japan relied on nuclear power for one-third of its energy and had planned to raise that to 50 per cent by 2030.

“Based on facing the reality of this grave accident and by learning lessons from the accident, the government has decided to review the national energy strategy from scratch,” said the policy document. “One of the key pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible,” it said.

The phase-out of nuclear power by the 2030s is to be achieved mainly by retiring aging reactors and not replacing them.

The proposed new policy calls for adhering to a 40-year life span for each reactor and for building no more new reactors. It leaves open the possibility of restarting reactors before they are eventually phased out, but only if they have passed strict safety tests and won approval by a newly formed regulatory commission.

Among the questions left open is how Japan will handle its spent nuclear fuel and avoid accumulating stockpiles of plutonium.

The Fukushima disaster raised worries over nuclear safety and severely damaged public trust in the government and the nuclear industry.

Growing anti-nuclear sentiment and mass protests made it difficult for the government and plant operators to restart reactors idled for inspections, and by early May all 50 Japanese reactors had gone offline. Imports of oil and gas for electricity generation have surged as a result.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda allowed two to restart in July to avoid power shortages during the hot summer months. At the time, Noda stressed that the restarts were crucial for Japan’s economy and energy needs.

His government faces strong resistance to changes in the nuclear policy from business leaders worried by surging energy costs and from utility operators. Towns hosting the 50 reactors — usually poor, remote fishing villages hungry for subsidies — also have complained of a loss of income and jobs.