Features | Society | East Asia

Japan’s Necessary Nuclear Future

Any big shift from nuclear power will take years. It’s time for Japan’s politicians to show some leadership to ensure the country’s reactors get back online.

By Ryan Shaffer for

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. 

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.   

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Kan, no doubt noting an alarming similarity between his disapproval numbers and the 70 percent of Japanese who call for the abandonment of nuclear power, appears inclined to exploit the popular rancour.  Calling for sharp reductions in national reliance on nuclear energy, while suggesting the possibility of a snap election on national energy policy, Kan is aiming to align himself with the anti-nuclear movement while using nuclear energy as a wedge against the historically nuclear-friendly LDP. 

Furthermore, the prime minister has sitting before the Diet a bill that would retroactively absolve the government of responsibility to use public money to assist TEPCO in compensating victims of the Fukushima disaster. At issue is a technicality in Japan’s current nuclear liability law that calls for government assistance in a nuclear emergency and fully absolves the nuclear operator in the case of an ‘exceptional’ event. The pending law would effectively decree that the magnitude 9 earthquake and 40-foot tsunami was something other than exceptional, going further to define the government’s financial obligations as limited to long-term loans, while burdening TEPCO with infinite liability for the current crisis. By extension, it would make it clear to Japan’s nine other nuclear utilities that they now operate their own nuclear reactors at infinite financial risk to their shareholders. To say nothing of the discouraging signal that such retroactive legislation would send to any business considering whether to build its next operation in Japan or, say, South Korea, the law would make Japan’s utilities think very carefully about whether they are better off continuing to generate nuclear energy or walking away from their nuclear assets.  

In reality, it’s likely that no snap election will be held, and the nuclear power industry can take comfort in the fact that the above legislation will probably not pass. Overaggressive law making has, after all, hardly been Japan’s problem for the last decade. 

A more immediate problem exists, however, in that, due to a peculiarity of the nuclear energy paradigm in Japan (and a little bit of ill-timed alarmism by the prime minister), Japan’s nuclear facilities find themselves in the tenuous position of depending not on Nagatacho’s reliable ambivalence, but rather on its heretofore lacking of resolve and assertiveness. 

Particular to Japan is a system in which Japanese local mayors and governors hold de facto vetoes over a utility’s decision to start operation of a nuclear reactor. The nature of modern nuclear reactors is such that they must stop periodically for refuelling—in Japan that period is 13 months. This means that within 13 months of last March 11, every nuclear reactor in Japan will have shut down for refuelling and inspection, and each will then be forced to run the gauntlet of multiple layers of elected officials to secure authorization to restart.  This is never a sure bet in the best of times.  In the present circumstances, such officials will be under tremendous pressure to deny the utilities, with their political futures no doubt weighing heavily on their minds. 

Unfortunately, the prime minister has done little to mitigate this pressure. His call for the shutdown of Hamaoka in the days following the earthquake sent a clear signal that Fukushima was not unique, and that every host community has reason to fear the local nuclear plant.  Despite this, the administration was recently handed what should have been a major gift when Hideo Kishimoto, the mayor of Genkai, Saga Prefecture, announced his intention to support Kyushu Electric Power Company’s restart of reactors 2 and 3 at the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant.  Pending the prefectural governor’s consent in addition to Kishimoto’s, Genkai would have become the first plant to restart since the earthquake, setting an important national precedent.  But days after Kishimoto’s announcement, the administration surprised and embarrassed him by calling for across-the-board stress tests for the country’s nuclear reactors—Genkai’s included—implying that the mayor was premature in deeming them safe. Though the issue awaits conclusion, the signs aren’t positive, particularly in the wake of the current scandal that has forced the resignation of Kyushu Electric’s president. The episode is an ominous preview of the struggles Japan’s utilities will face between now and April 2012 as they scramble to maintain their energy production capacity.   

Elimination of nuclear energy in Japan isn’t in principle a goal without merit. Particularly in light of the current disaster, the Japanese people are right to demand a re-examination of their nuclear energy paradigm, not only with regard to safety, but also addressing broader issues of regulation, spent fuel use and disposition, and economic competitiveness. Indeed, it may come to bear that the Fukushima emergency provides the foothold needed for a Japanese renewable energy industry that has thus far failed to gain traction.  Any major shift, however, will require decades, not months, in order for Japan to develop the technologies, policies, and infrastructure necessary to support viable energy alternatives. 

Though it is a jagged pill to swallow, a critical first step toward Japan’s long- term recovery is re-enabling its nuclear reactors. This is a matter of national concern, and if local mayors and governors are to make the right decisions for the national good, they deserve forceful and unambiguous national backing. Notwithstanding his efforts to exploit the tide of anti-nuclear sentiment, Kan appears to recognize this—since compelling Hamaoka’s shutdown, his more recent comments have aimed to restore confidence in the country’s nuclear reactors.  Furthermore, dispatching his Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry to lobby on behalf of the restart at Genkai no doubt played a role in Kishimoto’s initial consent to restart the reactors.  But the administration’s message has wound up muddled in Kan’s efforts to have it both ways on the nuclear issue. 

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In the meantime, the clock is ticking. As the Japanese summer heats up, reactors are lining up to shut down, and if they aren’t allowed to come back on line, the pain will be shared among a population whose threshold is already tested. If Japan’s leaders are unable to summon the courage and wisdom to stabilize Japan’s energy supply, this may be only the first of many hot summers for the Japanese people. 

Ryan Shaffer is a programme associate at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington where he manages Japan, Korea, and Vietnam programmes. Prior to joining the Mansfield Foundation, he served as a research analyst for the Washington office of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.