The Challenges facing Japanese Nuclear Energy Policy

As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, governments worldwide have stepped up efforts towards decarbonisation. Japan aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% from 2013 levels by 2030. Leveraging nuclear energy could help Japan meet this goal, a fact understood by the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. However, the government faces an uphill battle in the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Japan’s Energy Ambitions

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power generation accounted for almost 30% of Japan’s energy mix. However, safety concerns and public backlash in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster led the government to shut down all the country’s nuclear power plants by May 2012. Though some plants have resumed operation since then, nuclear energy currently accounts for only around 6.2% of Japan’s energy mix. To make up for the nuclear shortfall, Japan stepped up imports of natural gas; liquified natural gas (LNG) imports jumped 12,621 thousand tonnes between 2010 and 2011. At the time of writing, Japan is the world’s second largest LNG importer behind China and the third largest importer of coal behind India and China.

Positively, renewable energy’s share of Japan’s energy mix has increased steadily in recent years, reaching a share of 18% in 2019. The government anticipates that renewable energy will account for at least 36% of Japan’s energy mix by 2030. PM Kishida’s administration also aims to leverage Japan’s nuclear infrastructure to help achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, hoping to have nuclear energy take up between 20-22% of the energy mix by 2030. Even so, continued public opposition and post-Fukushima reforms make it unlikely that Japan will be able to meet this 2030 target.

Public Opinion

A decade on from the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese public continues to view nuclear power with suspicion, as the results of a 2020 survey by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization (JAERO) indicate. Questioned about their perception of nuclear power, 61% of the 1200 respondents considered it dangerous. When asked about their stance on nuclear energy policy, 48% felt that while nuclear energy should be used for the time being, it should be phased out gradually. Another 8% took a firmer position, arguing that Japan should abandon nuclear power as soon as possible. Taken together, these statistics are discouraging for the Japanese government’s plan to return nuclear power’s share of the energy mix closer to that which it enjoyed pre-2011.

Illustrating the impact which local communities can have on the nuclear restart process, in March 2021 an Ibaraki district court ordered the suspension of the Tōkai 2 nuclear power plant, citing insufficient disaster readiness measures, following a lawsuit filed by 224 residents of Ibaraki, Tokyo and Chiba. Prior to the decision on Tōkai 2, 7 other lawsuits were filed with similar initial outcomes barring nuclear power plants from operating. Though many of these were overturned on appeal, dealing with ongoing public opposition constitutes an additional cost and delay to the government’s efforts.

Regulatory Changes

Post-Fukushima reforms to Japan’s nuclear regulatory framework have also contributed to the languishing restart process. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) established after the disaster enjoys a far greater degree of independence than its predecessor, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), insulating it from government or industry pressure. While this is beneficial for ensuring nuclear safety, some scholars have argued that the NRA’s communication with plant operators is ineffective and that some of the Authority’s safety goals are excessive. As a result, delays and increased review costs have slowed the recovery of Japan’s nuclear industry.

Related to this, power plant operators face significant costs in complying with the NRA’s safety requirements. The NRA’s regulations include measures to respond to an intentional attack (such as by terrorists or a missile) and steps to prevent damage to a reactor’s containment vessel. Implementing these conditions across 28 of Japan’s nuclear plants would cost, according to a 2018 examination of reports, approximately 4 trillion yen (about USD $35 billion). 

Farewell, Fission?

Faced with growing costs and uncertainty about the prospects for plant operation in the face of lawsuits and regulatory inspections, Japan’s power companies have increasingly decided to divest themselves of nuclear power stations. Of Japan’s 57 existing reactors, 24 are set to be decommissioned whereas only 3 new reactors are under construction. Under the current system whereby nuclear plants may not operate for more than 60 years, it is likely that more reactors will be decommissioned in the next decade, presuming this limitation is not relaxed.

Overall, it is unlikely that nuclear power will account for 20% of Japan’s energy mix by 2030 as the government hopes. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to state that if the current state of affairs continues, Japan’s nuclear infrastructure is quite likely to atrophy significantly. Such an outcome would place at risk not only Japan’s climate ambitions, but its national security. 

As a resource-poor nation, nuclear power is a reliable source of energy which reduces Japan’s dependence on imports from other countries; energy independence serves to secure freedom of action and reduce the impact of external shocks. Recent tensions surrounding Russia and Ukraine underscore the risks inherent to Japan’s LNG import dependence. Worries about the possibility of Russia cutting off its supply of gas to Europe if conflict erupts resulted in US President Joe Biden requesting Japan divert some of its imported LNG to Europe, potentially challenging Japan’s ability to respond to sudden domestic gas demand. A European conflict would push gas prices up further, straining Japanese finances.

Japan’s reliance on LNG also endangers other parts of the economy, as price spikes caused by events like unexpected cold spells (as occurred in early 2021) squeeze the finances of both consumers and firms. If Japan does not reduce its reliance on LNG imports, it is likely to face higher levels of energy instability as LNG demand continues its global growth trend and climate change leads to more unpredictable temperature shifts. The decline of Japan’s nuclear industry would also jeopardise decades of accumulated research and expertise. With neighbours like China investing more into cutting edge nuclear technology, abandoning nuclear energy would put Japan at a competitive disadvantage and result in the loss of skilled workers in the field. Though the Fukushima disaster exposed fatal flaws in Japan’s nuclear energy sector, admirable progress has been made over the last 10 years to rectify those weaknesses; neglecting nuclear power now is likely to cost Japan dearly in the future.

Editor: Eden Fall-Bailey

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.