Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already aroused controversy in Japan on account of his pro-nuclear stance. One of the new government’s first propositions is to revise the zero-nuclear energy policy of its predecessor. Shinzo Abe gave a speech to the workers at the Fukushima power plant just days after the election on December 29th 2012. He said “this is the first time in history that humanity has been challenged with a clean-up operation of this scale”. But is it really humanity’s challenge, or is it the government’s?
Japan’s former government had originally planned to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2030. Of the 50 commercial reactors in operation in Japan at the time of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, only two remain in operation now. Shinzo Abe has cited the reconstruction of Fukushima as one of the new government’s top priorities, closely followed by the reopening of several other reactors with the support of the population. But proposed welfare and environment policies are now colliding.
In such an event as Fukushima, is it right to consider it purely a natural disaster, or does the role of the government bring to bear on the scale of evacuation and radioactive leaks? If the primary responsibility of the government is securing the welfare of its citizens, how does recommissioning nuclear power measure up to political expectation?
How will new proposals reform nuclear energy?
The Japanese Government has treated nuclear energy with a certain amount of caution since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Off the coast, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 generated a 15-metre tsunami, which engulfed and disabled the power supply and reactors at the Fukushima power plant. What followed has since been termed a “nuclear disaster” by organizations such as Green Peace, resulting in the release of radioactive materials and causing over 100,000 people to be evacuated from the area. The prevention of radiation sickness has been an ongoing task.
The main controversy over recommissioning the production of nuclear energy is in the interest of preventing a future disaster. Shinzo Abe proposes to bypass this possibility with revised environment and energy policies. Mr Abe proposes a “responsible energy policy” which places emphasis on the role of nuclear energy.
Mr Abe hopes that updated nuclear reactor designs will minimize the risk of future disaster. He blames the “aging boiling water reactors” at Fukushima which were unable to cool the nuclear fuel spent pools after the reactors were disabled by the tsunami. The cooling mechanisms play a vital role in ensuring that radioactive materials do not leak into the atmosphere, since the nuclear fuel spent pools are less secure than the reactor cores.
The World Nuclear Organization suggests that revised nuclear reactor designs will reform nuclear energy worldwide. Plans to extend the nominal design lifetime of power plants, and increasing the power capacity for nuclear energy will secure a role for nuclear energy in the future. In August 2012, the World Nuclear Organization recorded 60 new power plants undergoing construction in 13 countries.
Shinzo Abe suggests that decommissioning and re-stabilizing Fukushima, and considering the construction of new nuclear reactors in the country will “lead to the reconstruction of […] Japan”. Whilst the USA maintains plans for 13 new reactors and Russia boasts ten reactors under active construction, Japan’s plans to re-stabilize a nuclear energy source seem far from outmoded.
How will Japan’s pro-nuclear policy affect the economy and the environment?
The proposed outcome of nuclear re-establishment is to reconstruct Japan. But do Shinzo Abe’s motives lie in the economy or the environment? The World Nuclear Organization reports that “Japan has few natural resources of its own” and that “it depends on imports for some 84% of its primary energy needs”. The mass nuclear shut down operation of 2011 has resulted in higher energy costs and a dramatic rise in alternative energy imports such as oil and natural gas.
The BBC report that “many big businesses want Japan to return to using nuclear power”, but the reinstatement of some reactors in Japan have resulted in large-scale public protests. Nuclear energy will provide Japan with an independent energy source which will significantly lower its trade deficit. Before the March 2011 crisis, nuclear energy accounted for one-third of Japan’s energy resources. By re-introducing nuclear energy to Japan, the government marks a stable move towards a self-sustaining economy.
But do the economic motives endanger environmental safety? The American Nuclear Society suggests that “one of the most effective ways to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions in the future is by making increasing use of nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels”. But Kurt Kleiner for Nature Reports maintains a different stance.
Kleiner suggests that while the operation of a nuclear power plant itself has “near-zero carbon emissions”, it is the initial construction of these plants that damages their eco-friendly reputation. He points to the sources of nuclear energy as the problem: “uranium has to be mined, processed and transported, waste has to be stored, and eventually the plant has to be decommissioned. All these actions produce carbon emissions.”
Whilst nuclear energy itself may be considered more eco-friendly than exhaustible energy sources, renowned Japan correspondent Lucy Birmingham points to the country’s history of natural disasters as a potential danger. In November 2012, following the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, she poignantly remarked that “nuclear power and superstorms don’t mix”. She suggests that both floods and droughts can severely damage nuclear reactors, causing them to release potentially fatal radioactive materials.
It is this reality that prompts the Japanese population to protest. Since Fukushima, the citizens of Japan have become increasingly concerned about the dangers of nuclear energy. If the government’s primary responsibility is the security of its citizens, is Shinzo Abe’s attempt to bolster the economy and Japan’s carbon footprint one risk too far for the environment and the welfare of the people residing in potential risk areas?
The repercussions of nuclear energy: self-sufficiency or Nationalism?
The tension between the economic and the environmental motives for nuclear energy in Japan provokes concerns about the political motives for such a risky investment. The wider repercussions of reinstating nuclear energy suggest a political move towards either self-sufficiency or Nationalism. Many journalists have already commented upon this tension; Hannah Beech says that “the country’s mood is the most nationalistic in decades”.
Is nuclear energy just a stepping stone in establishing Mr Abe’s three main objectives for the new government? The Economist cites Mr Abe’s top priorities for Japan’s cabinet in the coming months: revision of the American-imposed constitution of 1946, the undervaluation of patriotism in the education system, and the security treaty with the United States, before going on to suggest that “this is a cabinet of radical nationalists”.
But there is a fine line between self-sufficiency and Nationalism. Having relied upon America for peace politics since the 1940s, endured an economic collapse as a result of a dramatic increase in import, and suffered at the hands of multiple natural disasters, consequently draining national resources, Japan’s proposed steps towards self-sufficiency might make for a stronger nation.
Hannah Beech suggests that “national debt still stands at twice the size of the economy, exports have dropped dramatically, and Japan teeters on the edge of another recession. More than a third of Japanese cannot find full-time jobs”. Perhaps rather than radical Nationalism, the reinstatement of nuclear energy simply marks a stepping stone on Japan’s road to recovery.