Japan’s Unclear Nuclear Future

By Tim Johnson

The future of Japan's nuclear plants like this one in Takahama is murky, with significant costs for dropping it from the country's energy mix at odds with public opinion. Source: Eunhei's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

In their piece, Choosing Fukushima’s Legacy, in the March 8 Wall Street Journal, CSIS’s Michael Green and Mike Wallace argue that the “consequences of not restarting Japan’s nuclear power program…are dire.”  Prior to March 2011, Japan – the world’s third largest economy – relied on nuclear power for 30% of its electricity.  Green and Wallace point out that without a stable nuclear foundation, volatile energy costs and the limits of LNG storage make Japan uniquely vulnerable to supply shocks.

Indeed, Japan’s replacement of nuclear power with fossil fuels has increased its dependency on Russia and the Middle East for energy supplies and (along with a stronger yen) has led to Japan’s first annual trade deficit since 1980.

Prior to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi power plant last March, official policy was to increase Japan’s nuclear power capacity to meet 50% of electricity needs.   In recent weeks, calls for the continuation of Japan’s nuclear power program have been made by experts in Washington and Tokyo, and it is expected that the Japanese government’s forthcoming energy plan will preserve a significant role for nuclear power.

While the economic and strategic case for nuclear power in Japan is compelling, its backers may underestimate the strength of public opposition.

For decades, government and industry experts have been telling the Japanese public that nuclear power is safe.  This will make renewed efforts to win public support for nuclear power all the more difficult as the scope of the equipment failures, radiation releases and contamination of Fukushima continues to sink in.  As one recent editorial in the Mainichi Daily News began: “The illusion of nuclear power safety has been torn out by the root.”

A recent poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun showed 24% of the Japanese public wanting to abolish nuclear power in Japan, and another 53% favoring a reduction from pre-disaster levels.  Only 15% of respondents supported a return to pre-disaster levels of production and just 2% favored an increase.

Advocates of eliminating nuclear power can now look to Germany’s plan to replace it over the next decade with conservation and renewables.  If, as expected, the last two of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants are shut down this spring for testing and maintenance, Japan itself could temporarily “join the ranks of the 150 nations currently muddling through with all their atoms unsplit.”

As an island nation with few natural resources, a break with nuclear power would be riskier for Japan than for Germany.  However, through conservation and increased oil and gas imports, Japan has already raised thermal power’s share of electricity output from 62% to 86%, while reducing nuclear’s share from 31% to 7% from December 2010 to December 2011 (according to METI).  If any country has the ability to wean itself from nuclear power, it is Japan, whose civic-minded citizens made emergency blackouts unnecessary last spring and summer by dimming the lights and cutting back the air conditioning.

Japan’s Prime Minister at the time of the triple disaster, Naoto Kan, has added his voice to those who believe the risks of nuclear power outweigh the benefits.  In a March 8 piece in Foreign Affairs he wrote, “I have reached the conclusion…that the only option is to promote a society free of nuclear power.”

Kan, however, recognized that the coming decades will likely see a worldwide increase in nuclear power led by emerging nations like China, Russia and India.  As the March 10 cover story in the Economist notes, “nuclear power is about to become less and less a creature of democracies.”  To avoid future disasters, Kan calls for clear international rules on the safety of power plants and the disposal of radioactive waste, citing the nonproliferation treaty as a useful precedent and calling for UN involvement.

The former Prime Minister’s point complements one made by CSIS’s Green and Wallace that, “a strong U.S.-Japan relationship could form the basis for a renewed international effort to raise standards for nuclear power operations, security, safety and emergency response.”  While Kan may be ready to eliminate nuclear power, his vision for an international set of rules is more likely to be realized if Japan stays in the nuclear power business.

Should Japan disavow nuclear power at home, its voice in the political effort to raise international standards will be greatly diminished.  Leadership on reactor design, waste disposal and industry regulation will naturally flow to those who are in the game.  Moreover, the ability of Japan’s private sector to export safer nuclear technology that incorporates the lessons of Fukushima will be harmed by the absence of a stable home market.

Although critics may consider a reduced voice for Japan to be its just deserts for the failures of regulation and imagination at Fukushima, the country’s historical sensitivity to the dangers of atomic science have long given it an important role on the world stage.  Should Japan decide to follow Germany’s example and phase out nuclear energy, its absence from the first rank of nuclear powers would be a significant loss.

Tim Johnson is an attorney based in Washington, DC.  He recently practiced in Tokyo and Singapore where he represented clients making investments across the Asia-Pacific region.  He can be reached at timothynjohnson@gmail.com.