Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced plans to reconsider Japan’s reliance on nuclear power—exactly two months after a triple-disaster devastated the northeast of the country. He called for the nation to ‘start from scratch’ with energy plans that are less dependent on nuclear, in favour of other forms of energy.
Japan currently relies on nuclear plants to supply about 30 percent of its electricity and, prior to the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, intended to increase this to 50 percent by 2030. As has been noted by ‘A New Japan’ blogger Hiroki Ogawa here, Japan has a severe lack of its own natural energy resources, and so depends heavily on imports and nuclear technology to provide energy for its 127 million residents.
The suggested shift from nuclear power would have considerable implications for Japan, but the likelihood of a dramatic shift is small. Japan has for many decades been seeking greater energy self-sufficiency and less reliance on volatile regions such as the Middle East. On assuming office in June 2010, Kan pledged to continue plans set in motion by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which oversees Japan’s nuclear industry, to expand the use of nuclear technology.
This move followed a push in the mid-2000s, at a time when there was talk of a nuclear renaissance, to formulate a nuclear power strategy. In October 2005, the Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy was introduced, followed in August 2006 by the Nuclear Power Nation Plan. METI has also been actively promoting the export of nuclear technology, signing deals with countries including Vietnam and opening negotiations in 2010 to trade with India.
Still, since the March earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear emergency, there have been growing concerns over whether Japan can really rely on nuclear energy. As a mountainous, densely-populated nation that is prone to frequent tremors, it in many ways seems odd that Japan has become as dependent as it has on nuclear power plants. Yet despite the dangers, there have been good reasons for it having done so.
For a start, it is generally reliable, abundant and (on the whole) safe power source. Japan is also not the only country that stations plants in proximity to major fault lines: several of the United States’ reactors are based along the West Coast, which is also prone to earthquakes. The Fukushima plant’s position by the sea has also been criticised by some, but this is a necessity rather than choice since fresh water supplies are essential to prevent the reactors from overheating.
The reality is that if there were really viable alternatives for Japan, successive governments would have already adopted them. Despite the crisis at Fukushima, the fact remains that wind and solar technologies aren’t sufficiently developed to provide the megawatts achievable through nuclear. In addition, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Japan’s nuclear reactors coped admirably well given the near unforeseeable challenge of March 11, and it was also not the earthquake that caused the leakage, but the subsequent tsunami.*
As for where to go from here, the divergence of views was recently evident in Nagoya, when Chubu Electric Power Co. was unable to agree over whether to close the region’s only nuclear power plant following a request from Kan. On May 6, Kan had called for the closure of the plant over warnings of an earthquake off the coast predicted by scientists as the much-feared ‘Tokai quake’ or ‘big one’. The plant, situated in central Japan’s industrial zone, powers several of the country’s key manufacturers such as the Toyota and Suzuki Motor Corporations, who in addition to the power company were unlikely to accept a shutdown of the facility without complaint.
Some question how much thought has gone into alternatives, or whether the decision to call for closures has come directly from the prime minister merely as an effort to demonstrate his ‘decisive’ leadership.Kan is certainly playing to growing domestic unease over the use of nuclear energy. For decades, there has been a growing tacit approval of nuclear energy. With the exception of those living in its immediate neighbourhood, aversion to the power source has generally been time-dependent, with younger generations more accepting than those with war-time memories. Japan’s recent nuclear disaster may well shift this pattern, however, as all generations fear the perils of nuclear radiation.
Japan is widely known for its ability to innovate, but with only a few weeks until Japan’s humid summer and the huge demand air-conditioning will place on the power supply, there’s no time to find an alternative. For the immediate future, Kan has been wise to call for a review of energy policy. But don’t expect Japan to be cutting its dependency on nuclear power for long.
Victoria Tuke is a PhD scholar at the University of Warwick, UK where she is researching Japanese foreign policy towards India.
* The article originally stated that 53 of 54 of the country's reactors shut down immediately. The figure should have read 11 of those in the vicinity of the earthquake.