By Sheilagh MacFeeley
Energy security in Japan had been based primarily on nuclear power, prior to the Great East Japanese Earthquake that took place on March 11th, 2011. Poor in resources, the island nation sought to diversify by becoming less reliant on fossil fuel imports, maintaining goals to drastically reduce emissions. Nuclear offered a way to achieve this and create profit. To maintain power, as the nuclear industry grew, top advisory positions were often given to Japan’s political elite causing cronyism and corruption. These mutual interests caused the Japanese government to promote nuclear as the premier choice. Even as the only nation to have ever felt the devastating effects of radiation in the aftermath of nuclear warfare, the convincing campaigns were powerful enough to rally support. However since Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) went private in 1951 this snug relationship between corporation and government caused many plants to get away with neglect, heightening the effects of the 2011 earthquake.
Japan sits on the very western edge of the earthquake-prone “ring of fire” in the Pacific, and is the most earthquake-prone nation in the world. Still, it was a shock when soon after the earthquake, an unexpectedly devastating tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the northern Futaba District; causing the worst nuclear meltdown the world had seen since Chernobyl. The situation went from bad to worse when local people dealing with damage, flooding, and power outages were faced with a leakage of radioactive material forcing them from their homes. This situation helped bring to light much of the corruption that already existed within the nuclear sector in Japan causing decline and mismanagement in numerous plant sites. In a report created by a commission to expose the crisis it stated that “the TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.”
For the people of Japan it was clear then, and remains clear now, why there is such a desperate need for change in Japan. For a nation of almost 130 million there is an ever-growing need for secure energy. As public rallies and protests took to the streets these past 18 months the government response unfortunately came too late causing further mistrust. The issue has dragged on and public opinion polls have shown a decline in nuclear favor. Immediately following the disaster 50% were in favor of current or increased levels of nuclear power yet over the past summer, waiting for the latest energy policy, protesters gained support. The most recent polls show 40% wanting to decrease nuclear levels and 15% wanting to abolish it.
Questions at the international level address the viability of Japan phasing out nuclear power altogether. The US fears it will spike fossil fuel prices and others have questioned the effect it would have on non-proliferation. The UK and France are concerned that without the Japanese nuclear market they could be stuck with unsellable radioactive waste. Nuclear lobby groups have urged that electricity prices will hurt competition while military enthusiasts have asked if Japan is truly ready to give up nuclear from the potential weapons perspective. However Yoshhiko Noda, Japanese Prime Minister, in the shadow of an impending election, has tried to sway public opinion in his favor. He stated that he did not believe it would be right to keep nuclear power generation just for the future possibility of creating a bomb.
Speculation was escalating through August, prior to the release of the latest energy policy, the ‘Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy’. However since its release it has sparked criticism from both sides of the argument, failing to appease either. It is based on three pillars that call for no operator to react for more than 40 years, no reactors may restart without regulator cleared safety clearance, and that no new reactors will be constructed. This eliminates nuclear power in Japan by 2030. As Japan moves forward in this process of elimination, whether they stick to the 2030 target or the public demands it sooner, one thing is clear: attention to diversification and domestic production must remain acute.
Japan does not plan to remain fossil-dependent for long; it plans to shift its attention back to solar. At the turn of the millennia, Japan was the leader in solar energy, and although recently slipping behind Germany and Italy in production, the new demand should have them forging ahead in no time. Two billion in funding has already been invested in these renewable and alternative energy sources and the economy is expected to benefit in the future. The government has already imposed subsidies, forcing big companies like TEPCO to buy renewable energy at a premium for at least the next 20 years. Individuals and small companies who have installed solar panels on their private properties are benefiting hugely from this, creating supply and demand for Japan’s new energy market.
If the Japanese government hopes to once again be a pioneer in energy security and efficiency, while regaining public trust, they must focus on renewables. The transition from environmentally and financially costly fossil fuels to solar, wind, hydro, and thermal energy can ensure long term success, and can place Japan as a leader in the next generation of energy production. Nuclear energy, with all of its benefits, is simply not a viable option in Japan’s vulnerable position on the edge of a tectonic plate where earthquakes and tsunamis are likely to re-occur. More importantly, the people of Japan must be diligent in voicing their opinions. Even Noda, known as the ‘unpopular prime minister’, has made strides to please the public. Building a new empire of energy will rely on severing the corrupt ties between governmental power and nuclear power and set Japan up for new investment and capital development. The public have seemingly been pushed to the precipice, proven they are serious, and may seek different political leadership if means they will get results. If any light is to be found from the disastrous events of March 2011 let it be from a renewable source.
Sheilagh MacFeeley, Currently a master’s student of International Public Policy and Diplomacy at University College Cork. Previously completed an undergraduate degree in Geography at Framingham State University focusing in global studies with a minor in Anthropology. American by heritage, yet living in Ireland gaining a European perspective.