A Truly Non-Nuclear Japan

©Justin Elavathil

A few years ago, the thought would have been almost incomprehensible, but currently Japan is running without nuclear power. On May 5th, the No.3 reactor in Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido was officially shut down, making it the last reactor to go offline for scheduled maintenance/”stress tests”. This event marked the first time in 42 years that Japan has been without nuclear power.

In the wake of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, a new movement for the banning of nuclear power has spread and reverberated across the nation. Communities are rallying to stop the restart of power plants all over the country, as anxieties related to the usage of nuclear power are becoming more prevalent. Similar protests coalesced around the use of atomic energy following the post-war reconstruction period. The difference is, unlike after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is no Atoms for Peace program to assuage the current fears of nuclear power use. The US’s Atoms for Peace program was integral in separating “peaceful” uses of nuclear fission (such as for power generation) from military purposes in the minds of a generation of “atomic”-sensitive Japanese. This acceptance not only by policy actors, but by the general populace as well, facilitated the construction of nuclear reactors in subsequent decades.

In more recent years, energy white papers published before the Great East Japan Earthquake by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) extoled the virtues of nuclear power use in Japan. One report stated that, in 2005, nuclear power plants produced 31% of Japan’s power supply, and recommended that Japan increase its reliance on nuclear power to over 40% by 2030, due to its cost efficiency compared to other methods of generating electricity. However, by bringing its power plants offline, Japan now must obtain its energy from other sources. As a result, since the triple disaster, Japan has increased its procurement of fossil fuels while also developing even more interest in renewable energy forms.

This shift in energy policy has both short-term and long-term implications for Japan’s energy acquisition. Consequently, its fossil fuel providers, including Canada, will also reap some benefits because of this shift. Industry Canada statistics show steady growth in “Mining and Oil and Gas Extraction” exports from Canada to Japan in recent years, with a notable bump in 2011. In addition, following the triple disaster, Japan (through various companies) has invested more in developing shale gas deposits in Northeastern British Columbia, and has shown their eagerness to see the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline constructed. Canada’s current and future energy exports are providing Japan with some degree of energy security. However, in the end, Japan must ask itself whether such a heightened dependence on fossil fuels is sustainable.

Although anti-nuclear activists have succeeded in temporarily blocking the restart of the Ohi reactors in Fukui prefecture, the increasing costs of fossil fuels alone make it unlikely Japan can forgo nuclear energy altogether. This is a stance echoed by Japan’s Business Federation, or “Keidanren,” a “who's who” of big industry in Japan. Keidanren has explicitly stated that nuclear power is essential for reinvigorating Japan’s flailing economy. Unfortunately, indecisive policy statements by former and present prime ministers regarding Japan’s future energy policies are only exacerbating the uncertainty regarding this problem. What is for certain is that with the delay in restarting the reactors, a hot summer awaits those who live in Japan. As demands for electricity peak due to air-conditioner usage, so will the rolling blackouts.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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