Last month, thousands of Japanese took to the streets to demand an end to nuclear power in their country. For more than half a century, Japan had been in the uncomfortable situation of being both the only nation that has suffered an atomic attack, but also one of the countries that are most reliant on atomic energy. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, though, has made it impossible to ignore this seeming paradox any longer. The Japanese people, known more for their restraint and willingness to endure than for their propensity to express outrage and challenge the status quo, appear to have found their voice.
A newly empowered public voice would surely be a positive in a country whose democratically elected leaders have waffled with impressive ambivalence through Japan’s troubles over the last decade. However, if this public voice portends a new reality for Japan, Japanese political leadership will need to find the sophistication and fortitude to respect the difference between democratic leadership and popular capitulation. Notwithstanding the immediate task of bringing relief to hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims, perhaps the most important and imminent test for Japan’s leadership in this new era must be to defy the people’s demands and work immediately to ensure Japan’s nuclear energy supply.
Japan faces a series of vexing problems that suggest a bleak future for a nation that only 20 years ago seemed unstoppable. Japan’s birth-rate is in decline, its labour force is retiring, its role as Asia’s primary economic power is being nibbled away by rising Asian competitors, and the national debt is soaring. Added to this is the globally familiar paradox of incessant energy demand despite tightening constraints on greenhouse gas emissions. Tragically, while Japan scrambles to address the new problems resulting from the events of March 11, it gets no free pass on these old ones. Japan’s problems are being compounded, and what was a tough challenge for Japan’s leadership on March 10 has become a conundrum that will require national sacrifices, cultural shifts, and leadership that is visionary by any standards, let alone those of the country’s political centre of Nagatacho.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The people’s outrage at the nuclear industry is understandable. However, while this is hardly a time that lends itself to thoughtful reflection, that is precisely what is in order.
Before the earthquake, Japan produced a third of its electricity from nuclear power. The shutdown of six nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, and a further three at Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant at the request of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, removes from the grid over 8GW of electrical capacity, or roughly half of what is required by the city of Tokyo. Taking all of Japan’s nuclear power plants off line would result in almost 50GW of lost electrical capacity, nearly equivalent to that of Australia. True, such a move would further reduce the risk of suffering another nuclear accident on the scale of Fukushima. However, that risk is anyway low (recall that the Tohoku earthquake was the first of its kind in a thousand years), while the price would be considerable: destabilizing Japan’s industrial capacity, reducing Japanese household wealth and lowering the competitiveness of Japanese goods by raising energy prices, devastating nuclear reactor host communities, and wiping trillions of yen worth of assets from Japan’s energy infrastructure. Given Japan’s abundance of national challenges, adding the above tangle of new problems to the mix would be recognized as a mistake when the history books are written.