Running On Empty, Japanese Economy Can’t Forsake Nuclear Energy

on December 27 2012 3:40 PM
Nuclear Energy Protest in Japan
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, about 80 percent of the Japan people demanded that the government plan for a nuclear-free environment. Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration responded to the widespread sentiment with a policy aiming toward the shutdown of all nuclear power plants by the 2030s. Flickr

Better than anyone else, the people of Japan know the devastating power of nuclear technology.

Japan is the only country to have been bombed by nuclear weapons. Two were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by the U.S. during World War II. About 200,000 people -- most of them civilians -- lost their lives.

Japan also declared a nuclear emergency in March of last year, when an earthquake set off a tsunami that knocked out the cooling systems at a nuclear plant in the eastern Fukushima prefecture and prompted a large-scale evacuation.

But a recent election shows that economic growth is the country’s primary concern, and nuclear energy generation -- risky as it is -- simply cannot be sidelined.

After the Fukushima disaster last year, anti-nuclear-power activists suddenly enjoyed record levels of public support. The government, led by then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, announced plans to permanently shut down all nuclear plants by 2040. And the country momentarily shuttered its 50 reactors to perform inspections and maintenance.

But in a sure sign of Japan’s dependence on nuclear power, two of those plants have since been reopened. Noda still vowed to phase them out slowly, but those intentions may fall by the wayside now that a different political party has returned to power.

The Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, scored a sweeping victory in Dec. 16 elections for the lower house of the national parliament. On Wednesday, legislators voted to instate LDP leader Shinzo Abe as the new Japanese prime minster. Abe is a pro-business politician who is expected to take a tougher stance on an increasingly aggressive China; he is also expected to be an advocate for the continuation of nuclear-energy generation in Japan.

The new trade and industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, confirmed that the LDP cabinet was not beholden to Noda’s promises.

“We need to reconsider the previous administration's policy that aimed to make zero nuclear power operation possible during the 2030s,” Motegi said, according to Agence France-Presse, adding that plants could be reopened “if they are confirmed safe.”

Abe and his likeminded compatriots have a point: There is no denying Japan’s dependence on nuclear technology. Upon news of the LDP’s electoral win, the stock market smiled in anticipation of reactor re-openings. The share price of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TYO:9501), owner of the Fukushima plant, jumped by 55.92 percent in the two trading days following Dec. 16.

That’s good news for a country that has suffered economic stagnancy since the early 1990s. Hints of growth in the years leading to 2010 raised hopes of a long-awaited recovery, but the 2011 Fukushima disaster dimmed those prospects since the resulting nuclear-reactor shutdowns sapped the country’s domestic energy-production capability.

Japan is in desperate need of energy, and nuclear power has long been its best hope for producing those resources domestically. This is not a new phenomenon: The first commercial nuclear power reactor became operational in 1966, and the Fukushima plant was commissioned in 1971. Before the disaster last year, nuclear power met about one-third of the country’s electricity needs.

Nuclear technology held great promise for Japan, despite its risks. Its original purpose was to encourage economic stability by cutting Japan’s dependence on foreign oil.

“As Japan has few natural resources of its own, it depends on imports for some 84 percent of its primary energy needs,” according to a World Nuclear Association report this year. “Initially it was dependent on fossil fuel imports, particularly oil from the Middle East (oil fuelled 66 percent of the electricity in 1974). This geographical and commodity vulnerability became critical due to the oil shock in 1973. At this time, Japan already had a growing nuclear industry, with five operating reactors. Re-evaluation of domestic energy policy resulted in diversification and in particular, a major nuclear construction program.”

The LDP was in power during those early days of nuclear experimentation, as it was for most of the second half of the 20th century. Noda’s DPJ came to power in 2009, but its mandate was tumultuous and short-lived, shuffling through three prime ministers in three years.

Back in the saddle again, LDP is hinting that economic recovery cannot proceed without greater domestic energy outputs -- meaning nuclear power may prove indispensable.

A domestic watchdog agency called the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was formally established in September, is expected to lay out new guidelines regulating nuclear-reactor sites sometime next year. The newly minted prime minister promises to abide by them, but, in his view, economic growth is worth the risks inherent in nuclear-power generation.

“A strong economy is the source of energy for Japan,” Abe said on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “Without regaining a strong economy, there is no future for Japan.”

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