The nuclear option

How Fukushima changed Japan’s energy use

Sara Itagaki

Development, Environment & energy, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

23 May 2016

Japan has changed its energy mix in the wake of the Fukishima disaster, and the rest of the region can and must learn lessons from the disaster about how to craft safe and efficient energy policies, Sara Itagaki writes.

Five years after the triple disaster triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake wreaked havoc on Japan, the country’s energy calculations have radically shifted. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that killed nearly 20,000 people led to a quick suspension of all nuclear reactors—inciting a severe energy crisis. Some 30 per cent of Japan’s power base load was taken offline and the country scrambled to solve its energy shortage.

Until Fukushima, nuclear energy was the core of Japan’s environmental strategy to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on foreign resources.

In the ensuing months, to make up for its energy shortage, Japan spent 58 per cent more on fossil fuel imports and reversed its overall trade balance, which had traditionally enjoyed a surplus. Anti-nuclear protests on top of this traumatic experience made it seem like Japan would abandon nuclear energy for good.

Despite continued negative perceptions, nuclear energy remains a key part of Japan’s revised energy strategy. Japan restarted two reactors in 2015 and two additional reactors came back online in 2016. Before Fukushima, Japan planned to rely on nuclear for close to 50 per cent of its energy needs. Now the government’s official strategy aims for nuclear to contribute 20-22 per cent by 2030. While this is a significant decrease, Japan’s continued reliance on nuclear energy is a necessary result of its chronic energy problem: the island nation is fundamentally dependent on maritime energy imports. The diversification of Japan’s power generation portfolio is vital for its energy security.

There is no doubt that Japan’s diversification strategy has evolved beyond revamped reliance on nuclear power. After Fukushima, Japan increased oil imports by 63 per cent then shifted to increase the share of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), coal, and other supply measures in its energy mix. Currently, close to 50 per cent of its fossil fuel imports come from the Middle East.

More on this: Going nuclear | Sean Edwards

Shortages in nuclear energy have led to a large increase of LNG in Japan’s energy mix. In 2010, 29.3 per cent of Japan’s power was generated by LNG; this jumped to 43.2 per cent in 2013. Private power companies are now looking to build LNG and coal power plants instead of nuclear power plants. Japan’s changing energy landscape has driven the development of new carbon capture technologies and ultra-super-critical coal power plants. The government is also looking to increase the share of renewables to 22-24 per cent of the country’s power mix by 2030.

The Fukushima disaster triggered a national push for energy efficiency measures. Traditionally, energy efficiency measures are difficult to implement because it means changing the behavior of large groups of producers. But the energy crisis bolstered efficiency awareness across Japanese households and industry. Meanwhile, public distrust in regional power companies sparked by the nuclear damage broke up monopolies in Japan’s utility sector. All these changes have altered Japan’s long-term energy outlook, though its problems with import dependence are far from over.

More broadly in Asia, Fukushima is now an unavoidable topic in national debates over nuclear power. Prior to 2011, nuclear power was an attractive regional option because China, Korea, and Taiwan all share Japan’s dilemma of limited natural resources to meet demand. National public opinion in Korea is supportive of utilising nuclear energy, but public opinion at the local level opposes any new nuclear power plants. Outside of Asia, even Germany reversed its nuclear energy reliance immediately after the Fukushima meltdown.

But despite a global backlash against nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, nuclear is here to stay. Nuclear energy is still a low-carbon, reliable option to stop the human effects of climate change. For import-dependent economies, nuclear is a renewable source that reduces energy vulnerability: out of the 65 nuclear reactors currently under construction, 37 are located across Asia.

But regulating nuclear energy gets tricky when governments must draft adequate safety measures to avoid apocalyptic meltdown. The threat of nuclear damage is real. Unpredictable natural disasters can cause accidents that not even the most technologically advanced countries can prevent. Still, the global discussion on nuclear energy benefits from Japan’s experience. The establishment of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority and revised standards for geographic and environmental concerns have made nuclear energy safer.

At the same time, the sudden changes in Japan’s energy outlook after Fukushima suggest that countries should not be solely reliant on nuclear energy use. Diversification can limit the detrimental near-term effects of energy crises. As the world’s most vulnerable region to natural disasters, the Asia-Pacific region can and must learn from Fukushima as it crafts safe and efficient energy policies.

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  1. Sergei Popov says:

    “Unpredictable natural disasters can cause accidents that not even the most technologically advanced countries can prevent”

    That is not relevant to the Fukushima case.
    Cause for incident was inability of TEPCO to restart auxiliary equipment.
    Hypocrisy lasting for 5 years is astonishing.

    “The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that killed nearly 20,000 people…”

    nuclear is an odd word in this sentence.

    Fully agree with other text.

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Itagaki, S. (2016). The nuclear option - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: