Uncertainties hang over Japan’s energy policy 40 years after the global panic over oil supplies shocked the nation and prodded it to diversify into nuclear power. This reliance on nuclear power, which had expanded since 1973, came to a halt following the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The government has yet to set a new direction.
While dismissing the idea of nuclear power phaseout as unrealistic and “irresponsible,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said his administration will try to “reduce as much as possible” Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.
But little progress has been made toward this goal and the prime minister appears to consider nuclear energy to be a key part of his administration’s economic growth strategy.
The government is in the process of crafting a new medium- to long-term energy plan by the end of this year. In working out the plan, it should set a clear timeline to end Japan’s reliance on nuclear power while making serious efforts to expand renewable energy resources as much as possible.
During the 1973 oil crisis, a rapid surge in crude oil prices, which nearly quadrupled in just two months following the Yom Kippur War in October that year, and fears of supply disruptions due to oil embargo by producing countries, literally shocked Japan. Companies scrambled to secure fuel and petroleum-related materials, and TV footage of consumers rushing to supermarkets to stock up products like toilet paper and detergent — daily necessities that people feared would run out if oil supplies were disrupted — symbolized the confusion in people’s lives caused by the energy crisis.
One of Japan’s responses to the crisis was to reduce its dependence on oil and diversify its energy sources, including an increase in the use of nuclear power. According to Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry data, the share of oil in the nation’s primary energy supply declined from 77.4 percent in fiscal 1973 to 43.7 percent in 2010, while that of natural gas rose from 1.5 percent to 17.3 percent and that of nuclear power jumped from 0.6 percent to 10.8 percent.
Expanding nuclear power generation did play a key role as Japan overcame the two oil crises of the 1970s and resumed its economic growth, which had dived into negative territory in 1974 for the first time in postwar history. Electric power produced by nuclear power plants grew to account for some 30 percent of Japan’s total electricity supply by 2010.
But the disaster at Tepco’s Fukushma No. 1 plant, triggered by the huge quake and tsunami, deepened safety concerns over nuclear power. One nuclear plant after another was kept offline once each was shut down for regular inspection, and nuclear power’s share of the primary energy supply in fiscal 2012 fell to 0.6 percent — the same level as 40 years ago.
The government has long touted nuclear power as less costly than other energy sources and essential if Japan is to reduce its reliance on imported fuels. The sharp rise in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports amid the nuclear shutdowns has indeed weighed heavily on the nation’s trade deficits since 2011.
Still, grave concerns remain over the safety of nuclear power plants, including their vulnerability to massive quakes. There is no end in sight even to the daily leaks of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima plant. Radiation fallout from the plant has left roughly 150,000 people in Fukushima unable to return home 2½ years after the disaster.
As to the writing of a new medium- to long-term energy plan, industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi indicated earlier this month that it would take three years to determine the best national energy mix, given the uncertainty over nuclear power and renewable energy. The current plan, compiled in 2010 under the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, called for increasing the share of nuclear energy in power generation to more than 50 percent by building 14 more reactors by 2030.
Mr. Abe has vowed to review from scratch the DPJ administration’s policy — set out in 2012 before its fall from power — to end nuclear power generation in Japan by the end of the 2030s. He has also said it is “irresponsible” to promise a phaseout of nuclear power when asked about recent comments by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that the prime minister should take the lead in steering the nation toward ending nuclear power. Members of the Abe administration say they are ready to restart the idled nuclear reactors once their safety has been confirmed. (Currently all of Japan’s 50 nuclear power plants are offline.)
Diversification of energy supply remains a major challenge for Japan. It still relies on imports from the Middle East for more than 80 percent of its oil, although the shale revolution in the United States has raised hopes for new sources of energy in the future.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power still account for only a tiny portion of Japan’s power needs. Far greater efforts must be made to expand the nation’s renewable energy sources.
One lesson from the experience of 40 years ago remains relevant for Japan. The 1970s’ crises led Japanese firms to upgrade their energy-saving technologies to the world’s top levels, which supported their international competitiveness in subsequent decades. Japanese companies must make strenuous efforts not to lose their edge in this field and to further improve energy-saving technologies. The government should vigorously promote renewable energy sources, which will create new investment opportunities in various parts of Japan. These efforts will help create the basis for building a stable economy.