international analysis and commentary

Japan’s U-turn on nuclear energy and its strategic meaning

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Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, and the ensuing nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor which left more than 20,000 people dead or missing, the Japanese government has focused its efforts on a dual front: managing the technical problems caused by the nuclear disaster and steering the national energy policy.    

In general terms, the response of the Japanese authorities to the nuclear catastrophe has been wavering. Although initially political forces within the country seemed to agree that collaboration was the way forward, emergency management under the former Prime Minister Naoto Kan (DPJ), has been somewhat controversial.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which was responsible for the nuclear plants involved in the incidents, wrote a government-mandated roadmap aimed at monitoring the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. Although TEPCO declared in mid-April that “it will take at least six months before it can stabilize the reactors”, Prime Minister Kan said in May 2011 that “the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant can be brought under control in around six to nine months”. As it turned out, the system for a storage pool for fuel at one of the damaged nuclear plant failed and the situation remained dramatically out of control.

Frequent incidents occurred afterwards and more than two years after the disaster the risk still remained extremely high. A number of workers at Fukushima were exposed to high levels of radiation up through August 2013, and in January 2014 about 100 metric tons of radioactive water leaked out of a tank.

All this clearly had strong implications for the nuclear power industry, not just in Japan but also worldwide, as several countries decided to reduce their reliance on nuclear power.

The recalcitrant attitude of the Japanese public opinion towards nuclear power is widely known, but the aftermath of the Fukushima disasters in the perception of ordinary citizens as well as the political leadership needs to be understood in a wider strategic context – including the on-going domestic debate over Japan’s national identity and regional ambitions.

While public opinion may be generally opposed to the use of civilian nuclear energy, more and more often in Japan influential voices underline that nuclear power is an important – indeed indispensable – component of the country’s energy mix.

“Japan’s Nuclear Village” is an expression used in Japan to refer to the local pro-nuclear community consisting of leaders in electrical utilities, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, businessmen, journalists and scholars. This heterogeneous but influential group has relentlessly acted to push Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to restart some of the reactors in order, at least, to lower fuel imports. The package of policies designed by the government to restart the economy – known as Abenomics – relies heavily on nuclear energy and is supported by the unpersuasive argument that nuclear energy is cheap.

The recent unveiling of the first energy policy draft since the Fukushima disasters confirmed this trend by designating atomic power as a relevant long-term electricity source. The document, which is expected to be approved in March, basically aims at reducing Japan’s nuclear energy dependency while asserting the need to reactivate some of the reactors (switched off after the meltdowns) based on the fact that they now meet the new and stricter safety requirements. Mr. Abe’s government appears to be strongly committed to U-turning on the “zero option” for nuclear energy which marked the previous government led by the DPJ.

In a related development, the country’s first ever National Security Strategy (NSS) which was issued in December pledged to strengthen defenses against a fast rising China, just at a time when Japan is confronted with a serious energy challenge at the domestic level. As stated in the NSS, referring to “energy and environmental issues”, the stable supply of energy and other resources “is essential for a vibrant Japanese economy and thus constitutes a challenge to national security”, while “promoting measures as the diversification of supply sources is necessary for securing stable and low-cost resource supply”.

Even if the draft remains vague on some basic aspects such as the exact mix ratio and quantity of the dormant reactors that should be restarted, the underlying message appears unequivocal: Nuclear is still the key energy source for Japan. Although the draft of the Basic Energy Plan foresees for Japan an energy posture based on a mixed formula of nuclear, renewable and fossil fuel, it marked a clear break form the datsu genpatsu – “escape from nuclear” – promise made by the former government to gradually eliminate nuclear plants from the country. Whatever one’s opinion on the merit of the government’s decision, the question posed by former Prime Minister Kan  – in making the case for a non-nuclear future – is crucial: “This government has not learned the lessons of Fukushima. Japan was on the brink, but now we want to go back to nuclear for economic reasons. But what happens to the economy if another disaster hits?” This burning question seems destined to remain dangerously unanswered.