Flexibility! That seems to be the key concept in the Japanese government’s final decision on its future energy policy. As a result, it seems the reports of the demise of nuclear energy in Japan are possibly premature….possibly.

Recently, the Japanese Diet (congress) proposed a future energy policy for post-Fukushima Japan. It called for all nukes to be scrapped when they reach an operational age of 40 years. It also called for a replacement of the nuclear plants with renewables and energy conservation. After the Diet formally sanctioned the proposal, they sent it to the Prime Minister for approval and implementation. The Press in Japan and many voices of nuclear criticism around the world hailed it as a watershed moment, speculating that this was the beginning of the end for the production of electricity from nuclear power. At the same time, political pundits suggested the Diet’s proposal may have been a short-sighted attempt to gain votes in the upcoming national election. Japan’s business community and policy experts from the international community loudly voiced a collective “Not so fast”, placing powerful pressure on PM Noda and his cabinet to re-think the Diet proposal. The result has been a relaxation of the Diet’s proposal by Noda and his ministers, but it is clearly not a rejection of the Diet’s populist-based no-nukes policy with respect to Japan’s future energy infrastructure. It is political compromise that softens the Diet’s hardline proposal, but not an utter dismissal.

The 40 year limit on nuclear plant operation still holds, which means the last of the currently-idled Japanese nukes will reach their regulatory limits in the 2030s. This has not changed. However, there remains the possibility of extending licensing for up to 20 years if certain strict criteria are met. In other words, if a 40-year-old nukes have been impeccably maintained and continue to meet or exceed all safety criteria, the plants can operate for as long as an additional two decades. These criteria will be established by Japan’s new, government-and-industry-independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority…after they decide on the restarting of Japan’s now-idled nukes. It seems they will not be able to address the re-licensing issue in time to save the three nukes that are already past their 40th operational birthday, but it could lead to licensing extensions for a number of the remaining 47 nuclear plants. In addition, there are three partially built nukes that Noda’s cabinet has given the go-ahead to be completed. The combination of possible relicensing and the three new nukes pushes the “no-nukes” deadline into the 2050s. Thus, Japan is still officially plodding ahead with its Fukushima-fear-predicated goal of no-nukes, but not nearly as imminent as it seemed but a few days ago.

However, that word – flexibility – keeps the light shining at the end of the suddenly-longer temporal tunnel. Japan’s economy minister Motohisa Furukawa said the cabinet has decided to take the nuclear-free plan “into consideration” when formulating the country’s long-term energy policy, rather than giving the entire plan formal Cabinet approval. The Cabinet’s official statement on their decision reveals that Japan will “put the strategy into practice in a flexible (emphasis added) manner while constantly verifying and reviewing it” and “hold responsible discussions on the strategy with local governments hosting nuclear plants as well as the international community to win understanding from the public.” Flexibility is the key to a rational energy policy for Japan. What about the possibility of importing fossil fuels becoming a financial albatross? What if the severely optimistic vision of easily building a renewable-based, nuclear-replacement infrastructure turns out to be financially and technologically infeasible? What about not being able to meet the nation’s GHG-reduction goals which will place an added financial burden on the country’s already teetering economy? What if mandated energy conservation policies drive Japan’s industries to foreign shores? What happens if Japan’s radiophobic public finds out that radiation is not the toxic monster they have been led to believe? By remaining flexible in their energy policy, Tokyo keeps the door open for a rational energy-generation mix well into the foreseeable future. As least for the moment, it seems Tokyo may be finally coming to its senses with respect to its energy policy.