Energy Policy: Japan at the Crossroads

How to Formulate a Strategy for Energy Supply

Politics Economy Science Technology Society

In the wake of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, public interest in Japan’s energy policy is fixed on one thing alone: nuclear energy, and how to live without it. Kamisato Tatsuhiro of Osaka University argues that a broader perspective is necessary at this crucial turning point in modern Japanese history.

In the summer of 2011 then prime minister Kan Naoto ordered a reform that would separate the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates nuclear power, from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which promotes it. This was prompted by the crisis in Fukushima following the tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011. At the same time, Kan established an Energy and Environment Council in the Cabinet Secretariat with instructions to carry out a radical overhaul of Japan’s energy strategy. On July 29 the council released an interim compilation of discussion points for formulating an “innovative strategy for energy and the environment.” The council concluded that Japan needs to draw up new energy and environment strategies from scratch. This process may well involve scrapping some of the basic shibboleths of existing policy.

The basic philosophy advocated by the council has three parts. First, to bring about a new “optimal combination” of energy sources, reducing reliance on nuclear power and making economic efficiency a priority. Second, to create distributed energy systems to replace the current system, centered on the utility companies, and to make an international contribution as an “advanced problem-solving nation.” And third, to stimulate an ongoing national debate about energy issues in order to secure public approval for the new policies. The council recommended that a draft of the new strategy based on this philosophy should be completed by summer 2012.

The chief aim of this process is to bring control of energy issues under the unified control of the Prime Minister’s Office. At the moment, responsibility for Japan’s various energy and environmental policies is divided among such organs as METI (Agency for Natural Resources and Energy), the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, and the Ministry of the Environment. Unifying responsibility for these issues under one jurisdiction would be a major achievement. At the moment, the main priority is to revise the basic energy plan, which METI refers to as the Strategic Energy Plan of Japan. In particular, the question of the best energy mix is under debate.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Japan’s energy policies were guided mainly by an outlook on long-term energy supply and demand drawn up by the Advisory Committee for Energy on behalf of METI (then known as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry). Domestic and international circumstances changed dramatically over the years, prompting Diet members to enact the Basic Law on Energy Policy in 2002. Under this law, the government is required to draw up a basic energy plan for dealing with energy supply and demand, to be updated at least every three years. The latest Strategic Energy Plan was prepared in 2010 under the government of Hatoyama Yukio. It will now be replaced and a new strategy drawn up from scratch.

The work toward a new strategic plan began in autumn 2011, led by a METI advisory committee, now known as the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy. Although many different issues are under debate, public attention has focused almost exclusively on the energy mix envisioned for 2030, one of the subjects under discussion in the advisory committee’s Fundamental Issues Subcommittee. People want to know what percentage of the mix will come from nuclear power. This fixation on phasing out nuclear power (how quickly it can be done, and how comprehensively) is understandable. Nuclear power, after all, was responsible for a huge disaster whose repercussions for the country are still being felt. But if we have really arrived at a historical turning point, should we not be taking a somewhat broader look at the prospects before us?

With this in mind, I propose to step back from the current debate to get a better view of the assumptions behind the examination of energy issues. When we speak of energy, just what do we mean? What points should we focus on as essential to our discussion of the subject? And what methodology do we need to apply when we address energy issues? These are the questions I want to consider.

The Complexity of Energy Issues

In extreme terms, energy is what causes the rise and fall of civilizations. Take the case of the civilizations in the ancient Mediterranean world. The deforestation that resulted from excessive logging is thought to have been one of the major reasons for their decline. And everyone remembers from their school history textbooks how the Industrial Revolution began in England thanks to the successful exploitation of the coal deposits found abundantly in the British Isles. Energy was always a fundamental concern for the state, and it continues to be so today.

Oil became a major source of energy in the first half of the twentieth century, and today it continues to provide the essential power that drives social systems of every kind around the world. People often credit the materialist prosperity of modern society to the advances in science and technology that have been made over the last 200 years. But it is far from certain that our current style of civilization would have continued to be viable without the discovery of vast oil fields. What we speak of as “economic growth” has been closely correlated from the outset with the volume of energy consumption. Indeed, although not all scholars agree, it can be argued that economic growth in the twentieth century resulted from the cheap and ready availability of oil, with its dense concentrations of energy. But it was this consumption that gave rise to the problem of greenhouse gases, which has been at the top of the global political agenda since it emerged in the 1990s.

Energy is thus one of the basic conditions that determines on a fundamental level how we exist in our modern version of material civilization. Energy is indispensable to society, and for this reason it easily acquires political implications (in the broadest sense of the term) in a wide variety of contexts. Let us first take note of this fundamental reality.

The discussion of oil reserves provides a typical example of how oil becomes a political issue. For quite some time now we have been told that reserves will run out “in another 30 years.” But as if by magic, the date of the final year keeps getting pushed further into the future. The reason for the confusion lies in the way “producible reserves” are calculated. For a variety of reasons, the size of these proven reserves keeps changing. Even if no new oil fields are discovered, the amount of producible oil increases whenever extraction technologies advance or crude-oil prices increase. In addition, estimating proven reserves is a costly operation. Not just anybody can get involved in the investigations. For this reason, it is theoretically possible for certain groups of people to manipulate the figures. In fact, some governments shroud their data on oil reserves in a veil of state secrecy. Further complicating the situation, human knowledge about the earth’s internal structure is extremely limited. In many areas, our estimates are based on extrapolations from known data, resulting in margins of error too large to be ignored.

What this means is that nobody really knows how much oil is available close to the earth’s surface. At the very least, estimates are bound to vary widely depending on the technological, economic, and political assumptions applied. Prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, there was a lot of dire talk about “peak oil,” the point in time when extraction peaks and enters a decline. No one is talking about that today. The fact is that alarm bells began ringing way back in the 1940s, and they have continued to sound loudly from time to time, only to fall silent again. On each occasion they have been muted by rebuttals from various perspectives.

It is clear that many aspects of the oil supply situation remain unclear. But this is just one of the uncertainties on the supply side of the equation. To put the picture into proper perspective, we also need to take the uncertainties on the demand side into account. Anyone can see that this makes the situation much more complicated, since it will be affected by complex parameters involving the shape of tomorrow’s society and the orientation of consumers’ lifestyles and values.

The Gray Zone in Science

Discussions of energy issues often venture unintentionally into what might be referred to as the gray zone of science. Consider the debate over global warming. Measures to counter global warming have become a new factor in the energy equation in recent years, but skeptics continue to deny that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide are to blame for the changing climate. In 2009 these skeptics were given a boost by the disclosure of e-mails that seemed to provide evidence that global warming was a conspiracy among scholars of climate research—the controversy that became known as “Climategate.”

Similar “gray propositions,” ideas that run counter to the thinking in the mainstream of the scientific community, exist in other areas too. A typical example is the possibility of developing room-temperature superconductors, something that has attracted a lot of excitement since it was first mooted around 1990. The media pounced on the news, eagerly issuing reports about rather rudimentary devices that might make the dream of superconductivity come true. Today, however, most physicists scoff at the idea, and even the small group of enthusiasts who continue to conduct research acknowledge that their efforts are unlikely to produce enough energy to make superconductors a viable power source.

The origin of petroleum and natural gas is another gray issue. It is generally accepted that fossil fuels came into being through the fossilization of organic matter over a long geologic time span. But some scientists argue that biology was not involved, that minerals changed into fossil fuels through an abiogenic process. One of the early champions of this thesis was Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907), the chemist and inventor who created the first version of the periodic table of elements. The theory faded from view when further research turned up considerable evidence of an organic origin. It was astrophysicist Thomas Gold (1920–2004), famous for his “Steady State theory” of the universe, who brought it back to prominence. His thesis on the abiogenic formation of fossil fuels attracted much attention. If it is true, oil reserves could be much larger than conventionally presumed. Although the abiogenic thesis does not have many proponents, it cannot be said that the theory has been disproved scientifically.

On the frontiers of science, drawing a line between true science and pseudoscience is not as easy as most people assume. In the philosophy of science, this is known as the “demarcation problem,” and it is one of the key issues under debate. I will not go into the credibility of all the foregoing theories here. But it is interesting to note that in the field of energy research, the gray zone apparently has a singular attractiveness.

What is it that makes the gray zone so fascinating? The answer, I suppose, is that because energy has become so crucial for contemporary society, people step forward to explore even those possibilities that ordinarily would not be considered worthy of consideration. To draw a crude analogy, energy research is like gambling, with huge payoffs when breakthroughs are made. The fact that research promises to generate dividends for society as a whole only makes the prospects even more enticing. Even the most far-fetched undertakings make economic sense if you take their potential value into account.

The Trans-scientific Realm

Let us return to the perception of Japan’s problems I mentioned at the start. Public opinion is divided on what should be done about energy sources, nuclear power in particular. This division dates back to long before the Fukushima crisis, and forging a consensus on a realistic course will not be easy, despite Kan’s proposals to create a society that no longer depends on nuclear power. This is the context in which the government has embarked on a new strategy. How should we react to this initiative?

As I have said, energy is essentially a political issue by its very nature. It is not a subject that can be easily discussed in scientific, objective terms. The issue takes on a different appearance depending on how the question is framed; different perspectives bring different aspects of the problem into clear relief. At the start of this essay I mentioned the Energy and Environment Council established by Kan Naoto during his time as prime minister. In its interim compilation of discussion points, the council argued that strategy needs to be based on objective data. There is nothing wrong with this approach as far as it goes. But with energy issues in general and nuclear power in particular, it is a case of “easier said than done.”

The problem is one that has turned up in many areas of modern society. The nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg (1915–2006) talked about what he called trans-science—questions that can be asked of science but cannot be easily answered by science alone. As early as the 1970s Weinberg recognized that nuclear power and other nuclear issues pose trans-scientific questions. New ways of dealing with them, he said, must be worked out.

Plotted on a chart, the trans-scientific realm would lie in the overlap between the political realm, in which decisions are reached using value judgments, and the scientific realm, in which decisions are based on facts. Many of the problems of modern society fall within this area of overlap, including safety standards, bioethical questions, and environmental issues.

Take the case of the outlook for future energy resources. This depends not just on technical supply-side projections but also on consumer choices: What kind of lives do people want to live in the future? When assessing the merits of the various energy options open to us, we need to consider a wide variety of factors, including supply stability, economic efficiency, safety, and the burden on the environment. Scientific, objective discourse alone is unlikely to lead to a consensus on the relative importance of the various factors involved.

To be sure, one option would be to leave such decisions to the so-called experts. But the social ramifications of the issues at stake are too weighty for the experts to handle—the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima is a case in point. The burden of responsibility is too heavy to place on the shoulders of a small community of specialists. It is also unlikely that society would consent to sign over responsibility for a vital matter like this to such a small group. This point alone should convince us that the questions raised by energy issues are fundamentally trans-scientific questions—no matter how scientific they may initially appear.

A Methodology for Dealing with Energy Issues

Given this reality, how should we approach the public task of reaching decisions on energy issues? Until the mid-1990s, the normal Japanese practice was to leave the decision making to advisory councils composed mainly of experts. The system was not without its critics: people in the know complained that the government offices in charge frequently decided where they wanted deliberations to go before the councils were convened. Frequently, they were even involved in the selection process as well, stuffing the councils with members who could be trusted to steer the talks in the right direction. In any event, this approach lost its cachet after the end of the Cold War, when the values of Japanese society were rapidly becoming more diverse.

One sign of the change is the use of the term goyō gakusha (scholars beholden to the government). Especially after the nuclear crisis, this became a popular derisive label for the experts who sit on advisory councils and lend their authority to government bodies. This trend is a sign of increasing distrust of “experts” in general—a trend that is not without its inherent dangers. What I want to highlight here, however, is the problem of how to choose the best decision-making method for dealing with the trans-scientific topics I have been discussing.

Of course, addressing problems requiring a sophisticated level of specialized knowledge without the help of specialists is no easy matter. But designing an energy setup for the future involves complicated value judgments that experts cannot handle on their own either. We at least need to accept that the conventional practice of leaving everything to advisory councils is unlikely to produce a satisfactory solution. This means we need to come up with a set of rules and procedures for getting non-specialists involved in discussions of trans-scientific topics.(*1)

In fact, efforts to build new arrangements on this basis started in the world’s advanced economies more than a decade ago. A wide variety of methods have been tried, including “consensus conferences,” “citizens’ juries,” and “participatory budgeting.” I do not have space to introduce these in detail here. Suffice it to note that they provide ways to get civilians involved in specialized debate. In this sense they can be seen as attempts to complement representative democracy with deliberative democracy.

The drafters of Japan’s new energy policy recognize the value of getting the public involved in the process. One of the methods they have employed is the polling model known as Deliberative Polling, a method pioneered by James Fishkin, a political scientist at Stanford University. It uses a random sample of around 300 ordinary citizens who meet in small groups to discuss the issues in question and then pose questions to experts in plenary sessions. This procedure is repeated several times (normally over a period of three days), at the end of which the participants deliver their final opinions, in the process revealing how their thinking changed over the course of the deliberation process. Unlike an ordinary opinion poll, it offers insights into what people think when they have been fully informed about the matters under consideration.

In normal circumstances, extensive preparations are necessary before a Deliberative Polling is conducted. In the case of the recent Japanese poll, however, relatively little time was available as a result of the tight schedule set by the government for getting the energy plan drafted. For this reason, the poll has come in for criticism in some quarters.(*2) Nevertheless, the government’s willingness to give this new method a try represents a significant step forward. After this experience has been carefully evaluated, I hope the approach will be refined to make it more suitable for the needs of Japanese society.

The disaster of March 2011 wrought huge damage on Japanese society. But it also presents us with valuable opportunities, if we are prepared to take them. We need to learn from the problems that have arisen and act together to develop a new methodology for discussion that is better suited to the new age. Only by doing this can we succeed in fulfilling our responsibility to future generations.

Kobayashi Tadashi, Toransu saiensu no jidai (The Age of Trans-Science), NTT Publishing Co., 2007.

Kayano Toshihito and Kamisato Tatsuhiro, Botsuraku suru bunmei (The Collapse of Civilizations), Shūeisha Inc., 2012.

Shinohara Hajime, Tōgi demokurashī no chōsen (The Challenges of Deliberative Democracy), Iwanami Shoten, 2012.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 12, 2012. Banner photo shows members of the public taking part in Deliberative Polling groups to discuss the paper “Options for Energy and the Environment” prepared by the Energy and Environment Council. Photo courtesy the Sankei Shimbun.)


(*1) ^ It may be argued that the legislature is meant to play that very role. We should note, however, that democracy is increasingly constrained by the fact that representative democracy does not allow people to get their opinions directly reflected in decisions on specific issues. When voters with definite opinions about the pension system, defense strategies, energy policies, and the education system only have a choice between Party A and Party B, they are likely to find their choice dissatisfying in some or many respects. The resolution capability of party politics is not up to the task of coping with the complexities of contemporary society. Because of this, more and more people are losing interest in politics. There is a possibility, it is warned, that the political system will essentially be hollowed out.

(*2) ^ Researchers at Hokkaidō University, Osaka University, and other schools released a position paper identifying the problems in the poll. I was one of the signatories.

Great East Japan Earthquake Tōhoku Kan Naoto earthquake disaster nuclear accident nuclear power energy Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency nuclear power station science Fukushima Daiichi Kamisato Tatsuhiro technology options for energy and the environment