Photo/IllutrationWind turbines in Rokkasho-mura, Aomori Prefecture in 2017 (Toshiki Horigome)

The Foreign Ministry is taking issue with a draft energy proposal intended for Cabinet approval this summer, saying it relies too heavily on nuclear power and gives insufficient consideration to alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

The government's fifth basic energy plan draft approved May 16 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) calls for nuclear power to account for least one-fifth of the nation's electricity supply in fiscal 2030, an unchanged goal from 2015.

But Foreign Minister Taro Kono, a vocal opponent of nuclear power in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in 2011, is insisting that the government's policy give greater priority to renewable energy sources in light of Japan's obligations under the Paris Agreement to curb global warming.

The basic energy policy sets the government's mid- and long-term energy policy, and is reviewed roughly every four years. The last review was in 2014.

The latest draft specifies that nuclear power should account for between 20 and 22 percent of Japan's energy needs. Experts say that reactors must be brought back online for that goal to be met.

However, the draft for the first time mentioned that Japan will aim for greater use of renewable energy sources in light of the global move to such technology and the lower associated costs.

The 20-22 percent ratio for nuclear power, as well as the 22-24 percent ratio for renewable energy were not reviewed from the figures in 2015 when METI decided on the “long-term prospect of supply and demand of energy.”

Some members of the METI council that approved the draft energy policy were unhappy with the proposal.

Council member Kikuko Tatsumi, an executive adviser of the Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists, complained that the bulk of members did not really represent the public--which is overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear power--as most positions were held by individuals representing the business sector.

“Many opinions were received from the public about what should be done about nuclear energy, but no time was given to discussing those ideas, nor were public hearings held."

Tatsumi called on the government to seriously engage in "two-way communication with the public," which is one of the provisions in the basic energy plan.

The government introduced a feed-in tariff system after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011 that requires utilities to purchase electricity generated by renewable energy sources like solar and wind power at fixed rates.

The ratio of renewable energy currently stands at about 15 percent. There is a growing view that the 22 percent goal for 12 years from now is too low and that a higher target is achievable.

The Foreign Ministry, at Kono's behest, requested that METI expand the ratio of renewable energy by 2030 during unofficial negotiations on the draft between the two ministries.

Based on a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Foreign Ministry reckons that Japan can easily achieve a 20-24 percent ratio in renewal energy in 2022 and raise that figure to 40-plus percent by 2030.

The Foreign Ministry is worried about criticism leveled at Japan during negotiations related to the Paris Agreement as the government still maintains coal-fired thermal power plants.

The draft just approved also cites coal-fired thermal power as an “important base load electricity source.” It also called for exporting the technology if it can be made more energy-efficient.

The Environment Ministry is in tune with Kono's position on renewable energy.

It has previously announced that renewable energy ratio could account for up to 35 percent of the nation's electricity needs in 2030.

Civic groups of many stripes in Japan have made strident calls to place a stronger focus on renewable energy.

The Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union on May 15 urged economy minister Hiroshige Seko to “aim for at least 30 percent, or 50 percent or more, to match levels in other developed countries.”

The JCCU's Chikako Futamura said that Japan cannot boast it is "promoting renewable energy as a main energy source if it maintains the ratio at the current level.”

As things stand, METI has no plans to review the ratio of electric power composition.

An official of the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy, which is part of METI, noted that roughly 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) a year is added to household and company electricity bills because of the feed-in tariff systems.

“We can’t increase that burden any further,” the official said.

If the ratio of renewable energy is increased, the ratio of other sources such as nuclear power has to be decreased.

A few reactors have been brought back online since the nuclear disaster. A drop in the ratio of nuclear power could affect moves to restart more reactors.

While METI didn’t touch in the draft on the necessity of building new nuclear power plants or adding facilities, it stated that the nuclear power ratio must remain at between 20 and 22 percent, adding that steps will be taken to ensure the goal is reached.

“Making energy policy is the task of our ministry," an agency official said. "We have no choice but to fight vigorously if there appears to be a major difference within the Abe Cabinet.”

Discussions between the two ministries will continue. The prospect of reviewing the breakdown in how the nation achieves its electric power is not known at this point.

(This article was written by Shinichi Sekine and Rintaro Sakurai.)