May 07, 2012

This Weekend’s News: A Nuclear-Free Japan

Japanese officials shutdown the last of 50 nuclear reactors late Saturday evening, taking the country off of nuclear power for the first time in more than four decades. Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors will remain idle for the foreseeable future as they undergo stress tests to determine their ability to stand up against a major disaster, a measure introduced after the March 2011 triple disaster that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and left the country’s nuclear-power future in a tailspin.  

Japanese officials remain concerned that the country could experience electricity shortages during the peak summer months without nuclear power, which previously provided approximately 30 percent of Japan’s total electricity demand. A panel of experts reported to Japanese policymakers in April that nine utilities could see electricity shortfalls in August. As a result, Japanese officials may power up two reactors during the summer in order to meet electricity demand. The Japanese Times reports that “Last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key members of his Cabinet decided that firing up the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi power station is essential to ensure a stable supply of electricity in the Kansai region in summertime,” even as the country continues to reduce its reliance on nuclear power. It is not clear if those two reactors will be back online by the summer.

Japan’s nuclear policy future remains uncertain as the country continues to reel from the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster that has left many policymakers and the public wary of continued nuclear power use. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, “Some members [of the Japanese government] call for doing away with nuclear power altogether as the Fukushima nuclear accident exposed the dangers of atomic power.” Other policymakers argue that “nuclear power should provide 20 to 25 percent of all electricity in Japan in 2030, compared with 26 percent in fiscal 2010.” Public opinion remains deeply wary of nuclear power. And some reports suggest that that public opposition “could become more deeply entrenched if non-nuclear generation proves enough to meet Japan's needs in the peak-demand summer months.

Japan appears to be at an energy crossroads, with a policy decision that could have consequences for decades. On the one hand, continuing to rely on nuclear power will likely demand a significant and continued revamp of the nuclear energy sector (which is already underway) in order to mollify public concerns with nuclear power. On the other hand, moving away from nuclear energy will put at risk Japan’s energy security given that the country will have to increasingly rely on maritime imports of liquefied natural gas and oil in order to meet electricity demand. This will have obvious fiscal consequences with respect to Japan’s trade balance, as well as consequences for the country’s climate goals. Of course, scuttling nuclear power may also lead to a major renewable energy revolution in Japan, a country that has long leveraged its technological prowess in pursuit of national goals. Either way, there will be benefits and consequences to Japan’s decision on nuclear energy that will have important security and foreign policy consequences in the future.

For a thorough treatment of the security and foreign policy implications of Japan’s nuclear energy policy, checkout my colleagues’ new report, The China Challenge: Military, Economic and Energy Choices Facing the U.S.-Japan Alliance