Since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan in March, AC Japan, a non-profit public service announcement organization, has been running a series of spots on Japanese TV involving various celebrities saying, ‘Nihon no chikara wo shinjiteru.’ Roughly translated, it means ‘I believe in Japan's strength.’ The problem, it seems to me, isn't a lack of belief in Japan's strength—it’s that Japan's strength is nuclear powered.
The image pushed by the nuclear industry and its proponents is that nuclear power occupies an irreplaceable, crucial intersection between energy needs and self-sufficiency here. Certainly, the Japanese archipelago is resource-poor, with few fossil fuel reserves that the nation can comfortably rely on. Without its own reserves of these resources, Japan is at the mercy of other nations, meaning that to maintain any degree of energy independence, nuclear power seemingly becomes an attractive option.
Of course, nuclear power isn’t the only source Japan relies on: geothermal energy, fossil fuels imported from overseas, and a smattering of renewables such as hydroelectric and wind power all contribute to keeping Japan ticking. But while Japan doesn’t want to rely on imports for its energy needs, hydro, wind and even geothermal options offer unpredictable output. Nuclear power, in contrast, provides a steady source of electricity. All this suggests that nuclear power is absolutely necessary in Japan.
But is it really? It’s worth looking at some of the key arguments point by point.
Nuclear Power Reduces Reliance on Foreign Oil
Following OPEC's oil embargo in 1973, Japan joined other countries in taking action to diversify its energy portfolio. Japan's nuclear power industry was already in existence at the time, and domestic energy policy quickly made major nuclear construction a priority. This move has been successful, with the share of the country’s energy coming from oil falling from 80 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent in 2009.
But, there's a difference between energy sources and electricity sources. Energy sources refers to primary energy, or energy in raw fuels. Primary energy sources are subsequently converted into electricity, refined or synthetics fuels and other forms more convenient for consumption. Taking this into account, it appears that Japan has merely shifted its dependence from oil to other fossil fuels: Japan's total energy consumption in 2008 by source was: 46 percent oil, 21 percent coal, 17 percent natural gas, 11 percent nuclear, with the remainder composed of hydro and other renewable sources. This means that 84 percent still came from fossil fuels, practically all of which had to be imported into the country.
In addition, nuclear power's contribution to Japan's energy security may have already reached its limits. Consider the hierarchy of power plants in an electrical grid: there are base load demands and peak demands, meaning the country needs both base load power plants and peaking power plants. Nuclear power plants, like other steam-generating plants, are difficult to start or stop quickly. For this reason, they are generally used in meeting the base load, which is consistent and predictable. Because large-scale electricity storage (i.e. enough to serve the needs of a nation) is still difficult, base load power plants match their output to the base load as closely as possible. This means that base load demand effectively represents a ceiling on the number of nuclear power plants that can exist (this image illustrates the point). Consequently, unless the base load increases dramatically, Japan is likely already at capacity in terms of what its nuclear plants can fulfill.
There were ambitious plans to increase the number of nuclear plants in Japan, but unlike continental nations such as France, Japan can’t simply and easily export surplus electricity to neighbouring countries. As a result, a dramatic increase in base load production capacity would likely be a gross waste of resources.
Nuclear Power is Necessary to Meet Energy Demands
During the summer of 2002, it was discovered that TEPCO falsified safety inspection reports, prompting the shutdown of 17 nuclear power plants. These plants remained offline well into the summer of 2003. Despite worries of rampant blackouts, the nation was able to pull through on thermal power sources without blackouts. In other words, TEPCO was able to meet its energy demands without the output of its nuclear power plants during this period.
This raises the question: why were there blackouts this time around? TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi power plant—and Japan's nuclear power industry generally—has garnered significant attention over radiation fears. But in terms of meeting energy demands, it has actually been Japan's damaged thermal power plants that may have made the difference.
Nuclear Power output can’t be matched by Renewable Sources
In a recent study, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment found that wind farms could theoretically match the output of 40 nuclear reactors. This conclusion was reached even when taking into account the lower utilization rates of wind turbines (they can’t generate power without wind currents).
This is mind-blowing. And there are some other encouraging things about wind power as well: scientists at Stanford University found that by connecting several wind farms together, a reliable pool of electricity would form that could be used for base load demands, something that was previously dismissed due to the intermittent nature of wind currents.
There are, of course, practical considerations with the large scale pursuit of wind power in Japan. For one, prime wind farm real estate is concentrated in eastern and northern Japan, but due to a divergence in grid standards, transmission of electricity between east and west is a headache. Thus, western Japan may not benefit from wind farms without the construction of additional transmission infrastructure. Still, wind power's potential appears to have been very much underestimated, and further exploration into its development seems sensible.
These aren’t the only reasons that have been cited for why nuclear power is an attractive option for Japan. It has, for example, been pushed as a cheap, clean source of electricity. Yet, the Japanese still bear some of the highest electricity costs in the world. Also, there’s Japan's strategic position within Asia. The US bases on Japanese soil act as a deterrent and check upon other encroaching interests in the region. Interestingly, Japan's nuclear industry may also contribute to this deterrent effect—Japan has the materials and technical knowhow to assemble a nuclear weapon in a matter of months.
Of course, it’s extremely unlikely ever to do so, especially given the constitutional constraints. Still, given North Korea's persistent belligerence, and with China's recent muscle flexing, this security dimension seems at least as reasonable a factor as some of the other misunderstood ‘facts’ supposedly underpinning Japan’s nuclear dependence.