Kishida Hot as Japan turns its head towards nuclear

  • Kishida’s government has put forward several measures to increase the country’s nuclear capacity.
  • Energy shortages caused by the war in Ukraine have propelled the country´s support of Kishida´s decisions.
  • Kishida wants to make Japan more independent from foreign suppliers.
外務省, CC BY 4.0

Why is Kishida hot? 

Answer: The Japanese PM is gaining the public’s support in regards to nuclear re-engagement policies.

In late August 2022, Japan PM Fumio Kishida was calling for a national expansion of the use of nuclear energy. Days after, he announced a plan to order the construction of new nuclear power plants. The announcement was framed as part of Japan’s new nuclear energy policy, embodied in the recently established Green Transformation (GX) Implementation Council, chaired by Kishida himself. The last movement towards nuclear power was made in March, when Japan’s cabinet approved the bill to extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors in the country. This series of policy decisions displays a shifting perception in Japan regarding the use of nuclear power.

Kishida´s pro-nuclear position may come as a surprise, considering the country’s past experience with nuclear power disasters. However, the current energy shortages, direct consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the growing concern regarding global warming can explain this recent change in perception. In a context of energy uncertainty, Kishida has emerged as a leader with policies that will make Japan less dependent on other countries´ — such as Russia’s — fossil fuels. 

Although the outcomes of these measures are yet to materialise, the Japanese government’s goal of generating approximately 20% of the country’s energy from nuclear power by 2030 manifests Kishida’s take on nuclear power. The potential future success of Kishida’s energy policy decisions will strengthen his political position and the overall perception regarding nuclear power, among both the general population and anti-nuclear policymakers. 

What is changing Kishida’s heat level?

Answer: The current energy crisis and rising energy prices, alongside a shifting perception in the Japanese population regarding nuclear power.

The rising costs of energy worldwide caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed Japan’s reliance on foreign fossil fuels, which amount to approximately 88% of the country’s overall energy supply.

Prior to  2011, the country was generating energy in 54 nuclear reactors dispersed across the country, which amounted to roughly 25% of the country’s power supply. Following the events in Fukushima of 2011 over 80% of the country’s population wanted to reduce or eliminate nuclear energy. At the present moment, the amount of electricity being produced by nuclear reactors in the country is estimated to be around 7%. 

However, the current energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to be changing the population’s perception regarding nuclear power. Energy shortages, alongside rising prices, have reportedly resulted in 51% of Japanese society coming on board with the restart of the reactors, outweighting a 41% against for the first time since 2011. The new energy policies being put in place by the Japanese administration have the purpose of reducing Japan’s reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Following the energy consequences of the war in Ukraine, Kishida seized the opportunity to highlight Japan’s energy dependence, putting forward his own pro-nuclear stance and favouring the need for more strategic independence of the country.

The energy consequences of the war in Ukraine have proved him correct regarding the country’s lack of independence from foreign energy imports since the approval of anti-nuclear policies following the Fukushima incident. Additionally, Japan’s green targets have also helped push his cause forward, since nuclear energy is one of the alternatives to fossil fuels being proposed by the new energy policy put forward by Kishida. 

What is driving Kishida?

Answer: Japan´s net-zero 2050 target, acquiring more independence from other countries, closer relations with the West.

In October 2020, former PM Yoshihide Suga announced that the country would strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, aiming to reach net-zero by 2050, through a gradual use of renewable energy sources. Kishida has carried on with this same premise, but he has also included nuclear energy as part of his climate policy to reach the obligations outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. 

Kishida has been pushing for nuclear re-engagement since the beginning of his presidency. During his first public speech as PM back in October 2021, he emphasised the importance of nuclear and hydrogen in the country’s plans for decarbonisation and achieving their net-zero target. However, at the time of Kishida’s election, public trust regarding re-engagement with nuclear power was still dubious, with polls showing that anti-nuclear sentiment still overtook those supporting Kishida’s declarations concerning the restart of nuclear reactors. Pro-renewables policymakers were also attentive to the new PM´s plans for energy policy in the country, since they believed that nuclear re-engagement may lead the government to set aside the development of green renewables.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Japan has been facing three main issues: a decline in the energy self-sufficiency ratio, an increase in electric power costs, and an increase in the amount of CO2 emissions. Following the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) eliminated the previous government subsidies for renewable energy. Subsequently, Japan became more dependent on imported fossil fuels from overseas, with Russia being one of its main suppliers.

By the time Kishida was elected as PM in 2021, he was faced with the challenge of striving towards a net zero target without the sufficient subsidies needed to develop the field of renewable energy in the country. Nuclear power then arose as the most viable and economical option to Japan´s dependence on foreign fossil imports. While renewables such as solar and wind power would require an important amount of investment to further develop the sector in the country, the pre-existence of nuclear reactors made nuclear re-engagement much more appealing to Kishida.

Furthermore, the energy shortages and the rise in energy prices originated by the war in Ukraine have been used by Kishida to support his pro-nuclear position. The policies being put forward to reactive and improve nuclear reactors all throughout the country look to enhance Japan’s energy self-sufficiency. Additionally, the phasing out of Russian gas and oil would also comply with the country’s net-zero target, a fact that may be used by Kishida to demonstrate the country’s commitment to the Paris Accords.

With this move towards energy self-sufficiency, Kishida is looking for a closer relationship with Western countries, particularly the US. In the present context of geopolitical and economic uncertainty, China is perceived as an economic and strategic threat by Japan, which fears a potential future invasion like the one carried out by Putin’s Russia. Therefore, partnerships and agreements in matters linked to energy independence and renewables can facilitate the rapprochement between both sides, which will result in a beneficial situation for Kishida´s Japan.  

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Kishida´s embrace of nuclear energy may push aside renewables.

Albeit the potential positive outcomes for Japan, Kishida´s plans of nuclear re-engagement can also be perceived as a first step towards the possible neglection of renewables in the country. The lack of policies to further develop renewables so that they can become a relevant power source for the country, while Kishida´s cabinet continues proposing new bills towards nuclear re-engagement, can be considered proof of this fact.

Additionally, Kishida´s recent announcement regarding the release of Fukushima water into the ocean reminds us that there is no widely accepted solution for the long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste, a key fact to be considered if nuclear is to be restored as one of the main sources of energy in Japan.

Furthermore, Japan’s focus on becoming energy self-sufficient aligns with the trend of strategic autonomy started by the EU and that has been gaining momentum after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a globalised world, the growing inclination of countries to not be reliant on foreign energy is reshaping geopolitics and the way states interact with each other.