Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Defending Abe: Why Japan's Decision to Reintroduce Nuclear Power Makes Sense

By Russell SeslerPublished April 14, 2014

After the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, Japan turned off all 48 of its plants. Despite significant public opposition to nuclear power, the Japanese government should restart its production of nuclear power to meet its domestic energy needs. Future meltdowns can be avoided through effective safety measures.

By Russell Sesler, 4/14/14

Before the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, nuclear power was a cornerstone of Japan's electricity generation. It constituted 30% of Japan's electricity production and was expected to rise to 50% of production by 2030. Yet, on March 11th 2011, a tsunami hit the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power plant. This caused three of the plant's reactors to melt down and release substantial amounts of nuclear materials. In the aftermath of that meltdown, Japan switched off all 48 of its reactors.

 Just three years the Fukushima disaster, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, and his government have made the immensely unpopular decision to reopen several of Japan's nuclear plants. Currently, 17 out of the 48 reactors are undergoing screening for probable reopening. According to a survey by Asahi Shimbun in March, 59% of those polled opposed restarts while only 28% supported it. Furthermore, 36% of the Japanese public had a very high degree of concern of further nuclear disasters and 50% had a fair degree of concern. Despite this public outcry, Abe's energy policy, with some minor tweaks, is the best strategy for Japan. His nuclear energy policy seeks to restore Japanese economic effectiveness, minimize the risk of future disasters, and limit environmental risks.

The most important factor in Abe's decision-making is economics. Japan is a resource-poor country and imported an astounding 84% of its energy requirements in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Now Japan primarily relies on oil, natural gas, and coal to generate electricity. Before the meltdown, nuclear energy was intended to absorb much of Japan's electricity demand and was expected to grow from 30% of electricity production in 2011 to 50% by 2030. Since much of its energy demanded is now imported, Japan's electricity costs have doubled and Japan has posted its 20th consecutive month of experiencing a trade deficit. All of these factors have weakened the Yen and have raised the costs for many Japanese businesses. Many environmentalist groups have urged the Japanese government to shift to renewable energy production instead of using nuclear power to add extra electricity supply. However, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power only constitute 2% of output and many experts believe that it will be years until renewables can supply a significant amount of Japan's energy demand.

Environmentally, a nuclear option seems much better than relying on coal. Much of the imported energy used to offset the closing of nuclear plants has been coal because of its relatively low effectiveness and secure supply. However, it has been widely documented that using coal for electricity production emits carbon dioxide, which has caused significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions. While there is always the risk of another major nuclear meltdown like at Fukushima, it can be prevented with stricter safety procedures.

To mitigate future nuclear disasters, the Japanese government now makes nuclear companies ensure that its nuclear reactors can withstand a maximum level of stress from natural disasters. Nearly all of the nuclear reactors that are being considered for reopening are along the safer Sea of Japan coast, rather than on the Pacific coast, to minimize the threat of tsunamis. Furthermore, in the wake of Fukushima, the Japanese government created the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which has been much more stringent and safety conscious.

Ultimately,  the tenuous state of the Japanese economy means that a return to the nuclear option looks like the most economically and environmentally viable option as long as the Japanese NRA continues to adhere to effective safety policies. As Japan looks to revise its energy policy, nuclear power should remain in the mix.