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Germany and Japan rethink nuclear exit after war in Ukraine

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War in Ukraine rekindles global interest in nuclear power as gas and oil shortages have reshaped energy markets and driven fossil fuels higher prices.

From Japan and Germany to Britain and the United States, leaders of countries that had stopped investing in nuclear power are now considering building new plants or delaying the closure of existing ones. The shift is particularly notable in Japan and Germany, where both came out strongly against nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. And it comes even as fears grow over another potential nuclear disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Atomic regulators are eyeing Zaporizhzhia, which is on the front lines of the war in Ukraine, with suspicion. Russian forces have held the power plant there since March. The situation there is increasingly dangerous, say nuclear experts. In recent days, the plant has bounced on and off the grid and switched to emergency power to cool its nuclear reactors.

For now, the threat of disaster in Ukraine does not play a major role in German or Japanese discussions, although it has reinforced the concerns of nuclear skeptics technology.

The global reassessment shows how the war in Ukraine is reshaping long-held positions on nuclear energy. Europe is preparing for a winter of energy shortages in which it could run out of natural gas supplies, potentially forcing him to close factories and send shivers down his spine. Around the world, fossil fuel prices have soared since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, with Europe, the United States and a few other countries around the world having drastically reduced their purchases of oil and gas. cheap russians.

This week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that his The government plans to build next-generation nuclear power plants with the aim of making them commercially operational in the 2030s. The government may also extend the operational life of its current nuclear power plants.

German policymakers, meanwhile, are considering extending the life of the last three nuclear power plants that were due to be decommissioned by the end of the year. The reprieve would be temporary – just a year or two to get through the current energy crisis – but it would still mark a significant political shift that has been at the center of German political life for the past decade.

“Even if I think it’s wrong to go into nuclear energy, I have to ask myself this question,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said at a door day this weekend. open government in Berlin. “It’s complex.”

Any move in Germany would have to be endorsed by Habeck and his Green Party – which was founded decades ago to focus on abolition of nuclear power. This remains a central political position of the party, but so does opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the desire to be as strong as possible against the Kremlin.

“We live in a really special time,” said Dennis Tänzler, director of Adelphi, a Berlin-based climate think tank. “The bottom line is that German climate and energy policy has been shaped since Fukushima by a cross-party consensus that, overall, the technology risks, the security risks, are just too great.”

Natural gas in Europe is 10 times more expensive than a year ago, and the continent is now competing with Japan and other global buyers for supplies of liquefied natural gas, driving up prices even further. price.

Electricity supply is also particularly weak in Europe at the moment, because a large part of the French nuclear fleet is offline awaiting safety certifications. Although unrelated to the war in Ukraine, it has exacerbated the global energy crisis.

Even some prominent nuclear critics seem willing to keep existing plants online longer, although they oppose building new ones.

“There is no connection between building nuclear power plants and dealing with the price spike caused by the loss of Russian gas,” because building them takes at least a decade, said Tom Burke, president of E3G, a London-based climate think tank. .

But, he said, extending the life of existing reactors might make sense. “If you can do it safely, and it’s economically worth it, I don’t see any good reason not to extend the life of nuclear reactors,” he said.

Germany is under intense pressure from its neighbors to keep its nuclear power plants operating. Doing this is meant to address the global energy supply shortages expected following the cessation of Russian fossil fuel purchases.

But critics of a possible extension of the life of Germany’s nuclear power plants say keeping them online would not really solve the needs of the current crisis.

Germany generates around 15% of its electricity from natural gas-fired power stations, but most of these are also used to generate heat, which means that nuclear power stations cannot entirely replace them. And given the limits of the transmission network between Germany and France, critics say, France may not be able to harness all the excess electricity from German nuclear power plants. An analysis earlier this year by Simon Müller, Germany director of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin-based climate think tank, found that extending the lifespan of nuclear power plants would only solve 1% the expected energy deficit.

“If we’re looking at an extension of a few months, you still have the security issue and there’s still the proportionality issue,” Müller said. “From a gas perspective, there’s really a pretty solid view that it’s not the big thing in the gas system. The discussion is really on the electricity side.

Unlike Germany, where the focus is on short-term plans to overcome the crisis, Japanese leaders are opening the door to new, long-term investments in nuclear power. Japan is facing a fuel shortage following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is striving to meet its climate goals with carbon-free energy.

After the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the collapse of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Japanese government decided not to build new nuclear power plants. It also limited the operating time of nuclear reactors in an effort to reduce the risks associated with aging reactors that are more accident-prone. Japan, which is regularly hit by earthquakes, had feared a repeat of the Fukushima disaster, which forced 165,000 people from their homes, mostly due to radiation exposure.

But the country’s leaders are now taking nuclear energy more seriously than at any time since the disaster.

In 2019, nuclear power generation accounted for 6% of Japan’s electricity supply, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Japan will now aim to increase this percentage to 20-22%. By summer 2023, Kishida hopes all 17 nuclear power plants that have passed the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s safety review will be back online. Kishida has instructed nine of them to prepare for power shortages this winter. So far, six of the 17 are in use.

Kishida instructed the government to come up with a detailed plan by the end of the year, with the aim of stabilizing the country’s energy supply and “making the public understand” the role of nuclear energy in the development of a sustainable source of energy. . The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is currently studying how to safely build next-generation nuclear power plants.

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, relies heavily on imported resources, including liquefied natural gas. It has battled power shortages by shutting down coal-fired plants and decommissioning nuclear plants, and has increasingly faced challenges from soaring liquefied natural gas prices as Europe buys global supplies to replace gas that no longer comes from Russia.

There are signs that a shift in nuclear strategy may now be more palatable to the Japanese public, particularly after harsh winter temperatures and a summer heat wave prompted the government to ask residents to save energy.

In March, the Japanese government issued its first “electricity shortage alert” after an earthquake in Fukushima struck six thermal power plants and knocked out power to millions of homes, including in Tokyo. The government issued warnings of power cuts and asked households to turn off their electricity, despite a cold snap that sent temperatures in Tokyo plummeting to 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Another similar warning came in June.

Some recent polls have shown greater support for the recommissioning of nuclear power plants, particularly with the aim of stabilizing energy sources. According to a recent poll which questioned the recovery nuclear reactors that approved the safety review, 58% were in favor while 39% opposed it. The poll, conducted by Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun and the Waseda University Institute of Advanced Social Sciences, was the first time in five years of public polls by the organizations that supporters have won out over opponents.

Yet nuclear power remains a divisive and deeply emotional topic in Japan, and change is likely to trigger new security concerns. Opponents of Kishida’s strategy have said it is possible to reduce the country’s carbon footprint without relying on nuclear power, but the country has not fully explored all options for clean energy sources, including solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy.

Opposition parties in Japan will likely seize on the issue, making it politically difficult for local government leaders to restart nuclear power plants. Given political sensitivities, utilities may also have concerns about investing in new nuclear power plants.

“It is extremely important to secure all options to rebuild a stable energy supply for the future, while ensuring security, as we have done in the past,” said Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, during a Thursday briefing. “We are aware that there are various opinions on the subject, but we will continue the reflections while talking closely with experts.”

Lee reported from Tokyo. Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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