Why Japan Shouldn’t Say Sayonara to its Nuclear Energy, por Diogo Mamoru Ide

After the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, most of the Japanese population has agreed that nuclear plants should be replaced. Former Prime Minister Kan stated that Japan should no longer depend on this source of energy. Thousands of protesters gathered in Tokyo in September of this year for the complete shutdown of all nuclear power plants in the country. Japan’s new energy policy—to be announced next year—is to decrease the use of nuclear power and focus on renewable sources. However, I think nuclear power in Japan should not be replaced. At least not yet. Contrary to the predominant public opinion, rapidly abandoning its use is no solution to Japan’s problems. Here’s why.

Representing 30% of Japan’s electricity, nuclear energy is critical for households and industries. As most nuclear reactors in the country were closed for security maintenance this summer, households and businesses were asked to cut down their power usage by 15%, leading to a fall in output. With more reactors being closed and the plan to build 14 new ones by 2030 being called off, industries may be pushed to move offshore where they can rely on sufficient energy provision. The Japanese economy is not doing well—the strong yen poses increasing challenges to the competiveness of Japanese exportations. Uncertainty in energy supply and power rationing are bad for business. Renouncing nuclear energy creates unnecessary economic hardships.

Renewable sources of energy are not ready to be scaled and therefore cannot replace nuclear energy without imposing high costs. Solar energy, for instance, costs 60 cents per kilowatt-hour whereas nuclear energy costs 6-8 cents. In times of economic recession, an energy option that is 10 times more expensive is just not viable. It is true that solar panel installations grew by 111% last year due to a new legislation requiring utilities to pay for solar energy delivered to the grid. However, Japan’s power grids are split in half. Tokyo and the northeastern region run on 50-Herz, whereas the rest of the country runs on 60-Herz. The use of solar and other renewable energy sources is fairly limited because of the lack of connectivity to regional grids. While desirable, updating the power grid should not be a priority for a government facing a public deficit of $10.5 trillion and covering reconstruction costs estimated at $250 billion.

With renewable energy out of the equation, abandoning nuclear power equals using fossil fuels and aggravating climate change. The non-use of nuclear energy triples the use of oil in Japan. According to the Ministry of the Environment, annual carbon emissions would rise by 200 million metric tons if all nuclear reactors were closed. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990-2020. Building 14 nuclear reactors until 2030 was part of a plan to work towards this goal. With no nuclear power plants, Japan will not meet its environmental duties—rather than drop, emissions will rise by 16%.

Abandoning the use of nuclear energy decreases Japan’s ability to seize economic opportunities in the worldwide nuclear industry. Although Japanese nuclear exports totaled only $200 million last year, the prospects of increasing profits are stellar for the next decades. Global nuclear energy demand will skyrocket due to growing global population, rapid growth in emerging markets and increasing urbanization. By renouncing nuclear power, Japan misses the opportunity to leverage its high-quality nuclear technology to make large profits. It has already canceled negotiations with Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and other nations to export nuclear technology and training.

Eight months have passed since the accident, but challenges remain plentiful. In the region near the accident, people have no access to their homes, face potential long-term health problems and struggle with exposure to radiation from the soil and agricultural produce. Moreover, the accident has significantly impacted the overall public perception on the use of nuclear energy. Despite this, there is no better energy source to replace nuclear energy in Japan at least in the short-term. Nuclear energy is clean, cheap, and safe. Even considering the accidents in Three Mile, Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear energy has an outstanding track record: it has the lowest number of deaths per kilowatt. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was a massive—and highly unlikely—natural accident. Still, the radiation that leaked caused no death so far. Japan’s new energy policy must not rule out the use of nuclear plants altogether. Holding back nuclear power is bad for business, the environment, and the wellbeing of the population.

CONSULTED WORKS

 Diogo Mamoru Ide é  Mestrando em Seguranca Internacional na Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (diogoide@gmail.com).
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