The Choices Facing Japan

Abe Nobuyasu, director of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Nonproliferation, Japan Institute of International Affairs, looks at the tough decisions facing Japan as the country considers its future energy policy. Is nuclear power a viable option in the post-Fukushima era?

Abe Nobuyasu, director of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Nonproliferation, Japan Institute of International Affairs, looks at the tough decisions facing Japan as the country considers its future energy policy. Is nuclear power a viable option in the post-Fukushima era?

The Post-Fukushima Dilemma

While the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) struggles to bring the crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima under control in accordance with the roadmap it released on April 17, debate has started across the country about the future of nuclear power generation and the overall energy supply. The initial target according to the roadmap is to ensure that radiation levels are “falling steadily” within three months. The second step involves bringing the release of radioactive materials under control and reducing radiation doses significantly in six to nine months’ time. Essentially, the roadmap all but told evacuees that they will not be able to return to their homes before the end of this year. But some experts say even these targets may be optimistic. There will be obstacles and pitfalls along the way. For example, TEPCO has recently determined that a substantial meltdown occurred in all of the three reactors under operation at the time of the disaster.

While this work is underway, people in Japan will be faced with a difficult choice. The government and the power companies will likely argue that with reinforced safety measures Japan should basically remain on the nuclear-power course. They will argue that Japan needs huge amounts of electricity to support daily lives and keep national industries running and that the country cannot afford to increase CO2 emissions by going back to burning fossil fuels.

The Clean Energy Option

A more popular option would be to pursue the German model, i.e. to phase out nuclear power while investing heavily in clean energy sources such as hydro-, solar, and wind power. Japan may also do more to exploit the potential of tidal and geothermal energy. Biomass energy is another option.

Precisely because of Japan’s position at the meeting place of several tectonic plates, the country is rich in hot springs and has large potential reserves of geothermal energy. Japan already has geothermal power stations at eight locations. It is not necessarily an easy source of energy to extract—but Japan already has the technology necessary for avoiding the environmental hazards involved in exploiting hot underground water rich in heavy metals and chemicals.

Biomass energy is another area where technological breakthroughs may open up rich new sources of energy. After recent oil price hikes, countries around the world have hurried to produce biomass ethanol from corn, sugar, and rapeseed. But by using edible hydrocarbons for biomass fuel production, we end up diverting a potential supply of food to energy uses, leading to accusations that we are depriving poor people of precious food resources. If we could develop the technology to crack hard non-edible hydrocarbons such as plant stems or wood chips, we would be able to tap into new sources of energy. An additional benefit is that this would provide a reliable alternative to oil and gas, which are often located in politically unstable regions and sometimes manipulated for political purposes.

The Best of Both Worlds?

A third option would be to take a no-nonsense approach that combines the two strategies outlined above. This approach would seek to make as much use of clean energy as possible, using smaller amounts of nuclear energy to make up any shortfall in supply for a considerable period. For this to be a viable option, the safety of nuclear energy needs to be drastically improved. Bolstering safety measures in light water reactors would be a first step. Intensive efforts should then be made to explore safer reactor designs. International efforts are already underway to develop so-called Generation IV reactors. Possibilities include a high temperature gas-cooled reactor that uses helium instead of water to cool the uranium fuel. If this type of reactor is proven to be significantly safer than existing models, its utilization should be encouraged internationally.

Another important aim of the Generation IV reactor movement is to achieve higher proliferation resistance. Ultimately, one solution to this would be to use thorium rather than uranium as nuclear fuel. Most uranium nuclear reactors today use enriched uranium fuel. The problem with this is that the same technology used to make low-enriched uranium for power generation can also be used to produce high-enriched uranium for bombs. That is why there is an international effort to stop the spread of uranium enrichment technology. Thorium cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

But the most likely scenario is that uranium-burning reactors will continue to be used. As a no-nonsense policy I would advise a “go slow” policy on developing future technology such as fast breeder reactors and nuclear fusion reactors. We now know we have an abundant supply of uranium around the world—with greater use of clean energy, there will be less demand for uranium than previously anticipated. This means we can afford to take our time in developing future technologies. Certainly, it would be prudent to continue research on these technologies as a hedge. But the indications are that developers are still struggling to find a way to handle the highly reactive sodium coolant that would be used in fast breeder reactors and are finding it difficult to come up with a material capable of withstanding the extreme high temperatures induced by hydrogen fusion. So why don’t we go slow? We still have plenty of time and thirty or forty years from now, advances in human science will have made work on these future nuclear technologies easier.

TEPCO Counts the Costs

In an opinion poll published in the Asahi Shimbun on April 18, a surprising 56% of respondents supported either expanding or maintaining the current level of nuclear power generation, even though a substantial majority (88%) said they were “seriously” or “somewhat” concerned about nuclear accidents. This marked a 10% decline from 2007, when 66% described themselves as in support. In another opinion survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun on April 16-17, 54% said nuclear power generation should be reduced or stopped completely, while 40% said they thought Japan had little choice but to continue to rely on nuclear power.

Whether you support nuclear energy or are opposed to it, the net result may not be all that different over the next five to ten years. In practical terms, a number of reactors will have to be left idle while safety measures are improved. It will be extremely difficult for any power company to restart nuclear power stations currently idled for maintenance. Starting any new nuclear power project will be even more difficult. There will be stronger resistance from local communities and prefectures where the power stations are located. Prime Minister Kan Naoto asked Chūbu Electric to shut down the nuclear power plant at Hamaoka, which is located on top of an active fault line 120 miles southwest of Tokyo. On May 10, he announced that he was scrapping the government’s plan to build 14 new reactors by 2030. The government’s safety authority will introduce more stringent safety requirements and conduct rigorous safety reviews before they grant operation permits. But there will be little public support for suddenly closing down all Japan’s nuclear power stations. People know that without nuclear power stations daily life and the national economy would grind to a halt. Cost will also be a major factor in the decision-making process.

Calculations carried out by the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry suggest that nuclear energy has the lowest costs (¥5-6/kWh) and solar energy the most expensive (¥49/kWh). While some challenge the accuracy of these figures, one thing at least is clear: The huge amounts paid out in compensation following the recent disaster will substantially increase the cost of nuclear energy. TEPCO is said to be liable for ¥4 trillion compensation, to be paid over the next ten years. Simply put, this will add roughly ¥4/kWh to TEPCO’s nuclear-energy costs. This will make nuclear more expensive than natural gas (¥7-8/kWh). And this does not even take into consideration the cost of the anxiety that people feel about a worst-case scenario. What would be your choice? (Written on May 30, 2011.)

In This Series
A Disarmament Expert’s View of Japan’s Nuclear Future
The Choices Facing Japan (May 9)
Looking to the Future of Nuclear Power (March 23)


Abe Nobuyasu

Abe Nobuyasu

Studied at the University of Tokyo and subsequently graduated from Amherst College, where he majored in political science. Joined Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1967 and served in various posts, including director-general for arms control and science affairs and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Also served as under-secretary general for disarmament affairs at the United Nations. Is now director of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Nonproliferation, Japan Institute of International Affairs.