Japan’s nuclear energy choices


As Japan recovers from recent flooding, concerns about nuclear safety are never far from people’s minds. During the flooding, bags of contaminated debris were swept away from cleanup sites associated with the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident. Japan also restarted commercial operation of domestic nuclear generation last month under more rigorous, post-accident rules. Amid these developments, questions linger over whether the country should (or even is ready to) expand its nuclear operations. For this, answers may lie in fuller public engagement.

In August, news broadcasts showed the control room of the Sendai No. 1 reactor in Kagoshima Prefecture renewing initial operations. Among those protesting the restart was former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who held office during the Fukushima crisis. Shortly after the reactor’s restart, five cracked tubes were discovered in the cooling system, requiring new mitigation measures.

To put the experience into broader context, Japan is highly seismic and volcanic in nature. It is home to 110 active volcanoes and has 1,500 earthquakes of varying magnitudes each year. In August, the Meteorological Agency warned of larger-than-usual risks (prompting evacuation) in conjunction with volcanic eruptions at Mount Sakurajima. Based roughly 50 km from the restarted Sendai plant, the volcano is one of the most active in Japan, with volcanic sediment from previous flow found about 5 km from the plant.

Critics of the nuclear restart point out that new safety rules and evacuation planning are not adequate. Sufficient numbers of buses, for example, are not available in some areas should the need for evacuation arise. It is also not clear whether design adaptations to Japan’s nuclear fleet adequately account for international best practices and the country’s natural conditions. Moreover, polls indicate strong misgivings by a majority of the public, which favors a slow phase-out of nuclear technology.

By contrast, supporters see promise in the return to nuclear generation. As an island nation with few natural resources, nuclear energy offers a form of low-carbon power generation that can run nearly continuously.

This past summer, Japan experienced one of its hottest seasons in recent history with utility usage rates running at 80 to 95 percent, as 43 operable reactors remained idle. Kyushu Electric Power Co., the utility that manages the Sendai plant, reportedly paid more than double its costs following the accident for alternative generation. With the restart at the Sendai plant, economic benefits are projected to equal $25 million per year for the local economy. (This compares with estimates of accident-related damages valuing the abandoned region, homes, businesses, and agricultural land alone at $250 billion to $500 billion in a national economy of $4.7 trillion.)

Looking ahead, Japan’s current, national energy plan outlines a goal of meeting 20 percent of domestic energy supply with nuclear generation by 2030. The new nuclear regulator and safety infrastructure will also undergo a review this January with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet, some say economic recovery has dominated political decision-making at the expense of more difficult discussions about risk in the country’s energy choices.

At this juncture, Japan has the chance to create a more durable national energy strategy. To begin, public discussions should present trade-offs and risks in technically viable energy options. Meetings should openly convey information about the assumptions and challenges in reasonably understandable form, and include top policymakers, safety regulators, members of industry and citizens.

Discussions should also allow for consideration of alternative options, like renewable energy and changes in practices, with rationale for costs and benefits. These exchanges could provide greater visibility to what may be a new safety culture, while also enabling better cross-sectoral channels for widespread learning.

A national referendum could then follow, asking which national energy path citizens will support and on what terms (for instance, higher taxes or costs passed to consumers). This approach would require more time and broad-based commitment, but prioritizing safety and fuller societal buy-in may prove to be more sustaining for Japan over the longer term.

For a country that has witnessed some of the darkest moments in nuclear history and also shown unmistakable evidence of resilience and innovation, Japan now has a unique opportunity to chart a more enduring path with policy and safety implications that can resonate globally. If nuclear energy is to have a chance at being sustainable in Japan, public officials, the nuclear industry and the country’s citizens will need to openly engage about what is known and assumed in their complex set of energy choices.

Kathleen Araujo is an assistant professor at Stony Brook University, specializing in national decision-making on energy-environmental systems, and science and technology policy. © 2015, The Diplomat. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

  • Sam Gilman

    It’s nice to see a somewhat more balanced article in the Japan Times on this topic compared to its usual hardline and often hysterical anti-nuclear stance.

    While a public education campaign is always a good idea, I’m not sure a referendum would be a good idea unless there were coherent concrete programmes presented as alternatives to choose from. The author correctly states that we don’t have a great deal of naturals resources here compared to the size and density of energy, and that includes renewable energy. Unfortunately, there has been a trend of publications and environmental NGOs reproducing the PR of renewables industry advocates as if it were objective analysis; any debate needs to have underpinned by objective independent analysis. We must also not fall into a false either/or mindset between different low carbon energies.

    We also need to be clear about what is happening environmentally. The data on global temperatures for this year are scary. This looks like clearly being the warmest year on record. We are missing our Kyoto targets. We are building coal plants which emit lots of CO2 as well as pollutants that harm directly now. Whatever choices are made, they must be low-carbon as much as possible.

    I think the article misstates the risks from natural disasters. The volcano in Kyushu is simply not a risk. No credible voice I have heard believes that it is. It is too far away. Likewise, we need to remember that the earthquake in 2011 did not damage the reactors. They all shut down according to procedure. The tsunami did the damage. Tsunamis are actually the most serious the threat.

    But generally speaking it is welcome to see an article in the paper that tries to present energy policy as a choice between concrete alternatives, rather than as a simplistic and inane nuclear yes/no.

  • Richard Solomon

    The majority of the local communities surrounding the Sendai plant were not consulted before the plant was reopened. Reports are that the mayors of these towns were opposed to this restart because the evacuation plans are inadequate. Abe chose to ignore this, however.

    Nuclear power may be ‘carbon free’ but the dangers it poses via the storage of spent fuel are severe, as has been profenmby the so called Triple Disaster at .Fukushima.

    The use of a referendum before any sections are made is admittedly a challenge but still a good idea. The government should not proceed with such significant programs unless a substantial majority of the electorate support them. ‘I’d suggest that a 60% majority should be required in such a vote. Anything less would indicate too divided an opinion for it to be followed.

  • Peter Weigl

    Germany ramps up “renewable” electricity production with a yearly surcharge of 22 billion Euros on consumers electricity bills. Despite this, its high carbon emissions in grammes of CO2 per kWh electricity produced have not decreased – because the expensive renewables can only substitute the lost near-CO2-free nuclear production, due to the nuclear phase-out.
    Germany is an example how not to do it.
    The IPCC has clearly stated that a doubling of renewables a n d nuclear ist necessary to reach the climate goals.