Originally Published 2011-04-18 00:00:00 Published on Apr 18, 2011
How can Japan bring in energy reforms with its weak political structures, a very strong nuclear lobby that can influence policymaking, and rising public discontent? Japan has seen five Prime Ministers in the last five years.
Energy policy options for post-Fukushima Japan
In a simple public relations move during the early 1990s, Japan's Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) created a pro-nuclear cartoon mascot called "Pluto-kun, Our Reliable Friend." "Pluto-kun," a cute little boy, was out dispelling fears surrounding plutonium and shaping public opinion in favour of nuclear energy. It proved to be a masterstroke. In 2011, nearly two decades later, almost a third of Japan's electricity is based on nuclear energy. Moreover, Japan had plans to build 14 new plants and increase the share of nuclear-generated electricity to 40 per cent by 2017, and to 50 per cent by 2030.1 Everything was going good - electricity was being supplied 24x7, industrialists were making money and so were government officials and bureaucrats. The nuclear boat would have sailed smoothly for a long time, if not for a 14-metre high tsunami wave that rocked it on March 11, 2011.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, now being equated with Chernobyl, raises some very important questions not only regarding the future energy policy of the country, but also about the structures that constitute the political economy of Japan's energy sector.

To start with, the reliability on nuclear energy needs a reassessment. The recent earthquake and tsunami have forced the shutdown of six reactors in Fukushima Daiichi (I) and Daiini (II) that provided a fourth of the total nuclear power generated in Japan i.e. 12 GW of electricity generation capacity from a total of 49 GW. This happened primarily because the tsunami took away the diesel generators that supplied electricity to the pump providing cooling water for the reactor. As a result, the temperature levels shot up tremendously and the fuel pellets exploded, leading to leakage of radioactive material measuring between 3,70,000 terabecquerels (TBq) to 6,30,000 TBq.2 This amount far exceeds the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) level 7 standard of tens of thousands of TBq3 and has widespread health and environmental effects.

So, even if Japan moves ahead with its plans to increase nuclear power generation and polishes its disaster management capabilities (which had major shortcomings, as the current crisis reflects), it will have to reconsider how to best manage and dispose off highly radioactive used fuel from reactors so as to reduce the risk of radiation leaks. Some of the options available are: using water ponds, making dry cask storage units, or developing underground storage. While water ponds have been the most widely used means to store spent fuel in Japan, they are not always the safest bet. In contrast, a dry cask storage facility, which is relatively safe, is a very expensive option that may not be economically viable at this moment. As for the last option of underground storage, Japan's vulnerability to earthquakes makes it difficult to confirm a site for the same. Thus, Japan might be taking too huge a risk by having a large proportion of electricity being provided by nuclear power. 

Second, what are the alternatives apart from nuclear energy? Japan has little indigenous sources of fossil fuels despite its heavy reliance on the same, and oil accounts for just 10 per cent of the country's electricity. In fact, Japan's shift to nuclear energy happened partially because of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Coincidentally, the current fragile political situation in the Middle East and North Africa (because of which the oil prices are touching US$107 per barrel in Asia),4 wouldn't make it any easy for Japan to resort to oil and further increase its import bill. The only other options are enhanced use of coal and gas or greater use of renewable sources of energy.

As of today, coal contributes towards 28 per cent of Japan's energy needs while natural gas accounts for 26 per cent.5 Moreover, it has some domestic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) resources that make up to about five per cent of the total usage. However, it's world's largest importer of LNG and has about 40 terminals to receive LNG, most of which, fortunately, have not experienced much damage in the tsunami.  

Though LNG and other fossil fuels may prove to be important sources of energy at this point, they come with the trade-off of increased carbon emissions. This is in complete contradiction with Japan's environmental policies to combat climate change and makes it further difficult for the government to blindly shift to such non-renewable sources of energy.

The last resort is promotion of renewable energy sources. While hydropower provides about 8 per cent of Japan's electricity, geothermal power provides about 2 per cent. Albeit, according to a 2010 report by the Japan Renewable Energy Policy Platform, renewable sources of energy could meet about two-thirds of Japan's energy requirements by 2050.6 Thus, a judicious mix of nuclear, renewable and fossil fuel based non-renewable energy sources coupled with restricted development of further nuclear energy based sources may help Japan meet its energy requirements in the near future and develop its long term energy base.

Third, how can Japan bring in energy reforms with its weak political structures, a very strong nuclear lobby that can influence policymaking, and rising public discontent? Japan has seen five Prime Ministers in the last five years. Moreover, the image of the current government has taken a severe beating due to lack of preparedness in disaster management. Also, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) electoral victory in 2009 based on promises by PM Naoto Kan's government to usher in energy reforms and end "vested interest's chokehold" on policymaking seem to be failing at the moment. Already under pressure to step-down, Kan's ruling party lost 69 seats in recent local elections for prefectural assemblies and three seats in gubernatorial elections. In order to pass any bills in the parliament, including funding legislation, the DPJ will require support from the opposition in the upper house. Possibility of such cooperation is remote given the lack of trust between the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP also seems to be keen to force the dissolution of the Lower House and have fresh elections. Moreover, there is an intense struggle going on between the strong nuclear lobby that wants a status-quo and other energy providers that are eyeing at radical reforms, to influence government policies. To make any significant impact at this stage of the crisis the government seriously needs to work on building confidence among its people and restrict the influence of the powerful nuclear energy establishment that has "defeated previous efforts to overhaul the nation's energy policies."7

Adding on to this is the intense public opposition to nuclear plants, as citizens are calling for reforms and are resisting building of additional reactors. Public in Japan has often resisted the building of nuclear reactors in their backyards prompting nuclear power companies to look for sites with weaker civil society.  However, in collusion with the nuclear establishment the government has devised mechanisms to overcome public opposition. These include revamping of middle school curricula by bureaucrats that emphasises on the safety and necessity of nuclear plants, holding public hearings with local people, and giving rewards as much as US$20 million per year to local mayors and host communities.  Nexus between government officials, bureaucrats, and the nuclear lobby supports such aggressive promotion of nuclear power. For instance, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) employs retired government regulators and its labour unions supported the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) during the last election.

Japan does have potential to develop cleaner and innovative industries, but inflow of new finance capital into these sectors has been severely restricted by the structure of vested interests. In order to genuinely emerge out of this crisis, the government of Naoto Kan will not only have to explore other avenues of energy, but might also have to nationalise TEPCO and take the whole nuclear project under its umbrella, to solve the current crisis. Therefore, although Pluto-Kun has retired from the television sets of Japan, its return should not be on the cards as of now.

1  Fergusson, Charles D. (2011) 'The Need for a Resilient Energy Policy in Japan,' Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 16

2  One becquerel (Bq) is the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.

3  Takahara, Kanako; Nagata, Kazuaki; & Ito, Masami (2011) 'Fukushima crisis now at Chernobyl level,' The Japan Times, April 13

4  Staff Reporter (2011) 'Oil Prices Mixed in Asian trade,' RTE News, April 14.

5  US Energy Information Administration, 2010

6  Japan Renewable Energy Policy Platform, 2010 report

7  Kuhn, Anthony (2011) 'Public Anger Against Nuclear Power Mounts in Japan,' NPR, March 31

8  One of the reasons why Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) built nuclear reactors in Fukushima that is about 250 km away from Tokyo

9  Kuhn, Anthony (2011) 'Public Anger Against Nuclear Power Mounts in Japan,' NPR, March 31 

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