As Japan’s Upper House election approaches, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party, the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), are in a favorable position. Just how far the LDP and its coalition partners sweep the chamber is still to yet to be determined. Despite favorable polls, Mr. Abe is remaining vigilant in what is proving to be a personal election for him as he tries to redeem himself after overseeing electoral defeat in 2007. This election is no less personal for the people of Japan who face a number of challenges. In particular, the delicate issue of nuclear power casts a shadow over issues ranging from the economy to personal safety.
Two years after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, many in Japan remain opposed to atomic energy. This is understandable in light of problems that continue to emanate from the painstaking process of decommissioning the stricken nuclear facility. Most troubling of all is the serious dilemma in which water contaminated by radioactive cesium and strontium may have been leaking into the Pacific Ocean.
The public skepticism regarding atomic power is quite visible: The LDP stands alone in wanting to avert a total nuclear shutdown. Not even the Prime Minister’s wife, Akie Abe, approves of atomic energy. However, the economic and financial imperative stemming from the shutdown of all but two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors has hardened the LDP’s desire to keep the atom in the country’s energy mix.
Japan used to get some 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, but after the Fukushima disaster and subsequent atomic shutdown, the resource-poor country has had to make up for lost power generation with fossil fuel imports. The additional oil, gas, and coal purchases have been particularly costly in the midst of Mr. Abe’s push to jumpstart Japan’s economy through a set of policies informally known as “Abenomics.”
Paul Scalise of the University of Tokyo noted the steep losses that power companies faced as their fuel costs rose 36 percent last year. Although the activation of two nuclear reactors has partially alleviated that burden, Japan struggles with a trade deficit that rose to US$10.5 billion in May from April’s figure of $8.6 billion. All of that comes on top of increased energy costs that are in large part driven by new, expensive fossil fuel imports. These circumstances hobble the LDP’s push for economic revival and have led analysts like Masakazu Toyoda of the Institute of Energy Economics to conclude that Japan cannot go on without nuclear energy.
Four utilities have applied to restart ten reactors that have a capacity of 8.84 gigawatts (GW) and make up 19 percent of Japan’s total nuclear capacity. According to Bloomberg, that would be enough to supply 2.9 million households with electricity. This time will be different – at least, that is what the government and power companies have been stressing to the public.
If there is any good news it comes in the form of lessons learned. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which was in charge of the plant at Fukushima, admitted that the nuclear crisis was avoidable, brought in foreign experts, and will abide by revamped regulations that attempt to transform the culture of efficiency in Japan’s nuclear industry to one of safety.
Rather than allow “voluntary” safety codes, the tougher regulations will be legally binding and utilities will have a higher bar to pass in order to restart their reactors. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), a regulatory watch-dog established in the wake of the 2011 crisis, has stayed on course despite residual pressure to expedite the inspection process. It will demand strident safeguard measures like emergency command centers, earthquake fault inspections, and bolstered tsunami defenses to lower the risk of Fukushima-style disasters.
Of course, the current petitions to restart nuclear reactors are not very ambitious and demonstrate the difficulty that Japanese utilities face beyond the NRA’s regulations. The facilities in question are located on Japan’s western coast, which is considered to be less prone to tsunamis, and in towns or cities that are economically dependent on the nuclear power industry. On the other hand, there has been stiff local resistance to anyone even hinting of a restart in other parts of the country – a sentiment that has either stopped utilities in their tracks or deterred them from even considering applying for reactivation in the first place.
Shutting down Japan’s nuclear infrastructure following the 2011 disaster was the only responsible thing to do. Similarly, authorities should take as long as needed to inspect and upgrade the safety features of each and every nuclear power facility before reactivating it. In the short and medium term, a total atomic phase-out looks economically infeasible – especially in light of environmental concerns about new emissions from the increased consumption of fossil fuels.
Japan’s recent agreement with France to cooperate on nuclear technology and infrastructure exports should add an extra layer of safety, given France’s industry experience and status as a nuclear powerhouse that derives over 75 percent of its electricity from atomic power.
Given that reviving Japan’s economy appears to be at least in part dependent on restarting some nuclear power facilities, the country looks set to give nuclear energy a cautious second chance as long as the NRA and other pressure groups enforce the new safeguards and keep utilities from going back to their old, negligent habits.
Sebastian Sarmiento-Saher is an editorial assistant of The Diplomat.