The Future of Nuclear Energy in Japan

Interview with Daniel P. Aldrich
August 1, 2011

Five months after the Tohoku earthquake, we spoke with Dr. Daniel Aldrich, an expert on nuclear energy in Japan, Japanese civil society, and Japan-U.S. relations. He is currently an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and a visiting researcher at the East West Center.

An Interview with Daniel P. Aldrich

August 1, 2011
By Chris Acheson

The March 2011 earthquake in Japan has had a significant impact not only on cities in the Tohoku region but also on the state of domestic nuclear energy generation. The government and public responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster have brought the safety of nuclear energy into the spotlight. The dwindling number of active nuclear power stations has forced many Japanese homes and businesses to conserve power in order to avoid exceeding the available amount of electricity. In addition, the regulatory environment in which Japan’s nuclear power plant operators function has come under public criticism.

Five months after the Tohoku earthquake, we spoke with Dr. Daniel Aldrich, an expert on nuclear energy in Japan, Japanese civil society, and Japan-U.S. relations. He is currently an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and a Visiting Researcher at the East-West Center.

You are in Japan right now studying the areas affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Can you give us your assessment of the current situation?

During two research trips to Tohoku this summer, I have observed strong variations in survival rates across 30 or so localities in the coastal prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, all of which were affected by the tsunami. The area of Koshio-cho in Kamiashi City, for example, lost less than 0.2% of its population, while 35% of the population in the district of Kamaya in Ishinomaki perished due to the tsunami. Similarly, the stages of recovery across these towns and cities vary widely. In some communities, local authorities have been able to build or at least secure temporary housing for most of their displaced residents (usually from private companies in nearby urban centers such as Sendai), while in other areas hundreds of survivors remain in school gyms and other temporary shelters.

Some towns have begun to separate out their tremendous piles of debris into recycling categories (metals, concrete, biomass, and so forth), some have put forth creative plans for their recovery, and other communities have yet to engage in medium-to-long-term thinking on these important issues and instead are waiting for guidance from the central government.

My own research on recoveries in the United States, India, and Japan has shown me that the bonds between community members serve as a critical predictor of recovery far more than government aid, levels of damage, or socio-economic levels before the disaster. While my research is ongoing, residents in the Tohoku seem to have fewer and weaker bonds than their counterparts in areas such as Hyogo Prefecture, and this may foretell a slower and less efficient process of rebuilding. Another factor compounding the difficulty of the recovery in Tohoku is the large elderly population in its declining fishing towns, which had older populations, on average, than urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Sendai. Finally, with few local industries and many small businesses out of commission, there may be a weak economic base for recovery, although Toyota and several other firms have stated their desire to locate new manufacturing facilities in Tohoku.

Nuclear energy provides about 30% of Japan’s electricity. How has the evolving situation at the Fukushima facility affected Japan’s energy usage and outlook?

The ongoing crisis in Fukushima—categorized as a Level 7 or “major accident” on the International Nuclear and Radiological Scale—has dramatically altered Japan’s energy usage and outlook, not only on nuclear energy but also on traditional thermal sources, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), oil, and coal. Due to the fuel meltdowns at the three Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors, a request from Prime Minister Naoto Kan that the Hamaoka reactors in Shizuoka be suspended, an accident this past week at another plant, and ongoing maintenance on a number of other reactors, only 18 out of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan are currently operational. Authorities are handling the loss of two-thirds of Japan’s nuclear energy supply by bringing many previously idled thermal plants back online and cutting back power use by both commercial and residential users.

The central government and many firms and homes that I visited have limited their use of air conditioning, raising the indoor temperatures to the low 80s, and promoted short-sleeve shirts over jackets and ties. Despite ongoing attempts to reduce demand for power, researchers have cautioned that fossil fuel production can fill only 30% of the demand that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will now face. One estimate forecasts that if Japan ceases to use nuclear power in the future, it will triple its oil use, which will certainly alter Japan’s attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to meet international and domestic environmental obligations.

To further complicate the issue, Prime Minister Kan announced at a July 13 press conference that Japan should aim to create a society that will not be dependent on nuclear power. While Koichiro Gemba and other Cabinet members immediately declared that this statement was the prime minister’s personal belief and not official government policy, these words had immediate ramifications. First, Japanese government officials canceled ongoing negotiations with Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and other nations to which Japan had hoped to export nuclear power technology and training. The reason given for this suspension was that continuing the export process could risk contradicting the prime minister’s policy.

Next, the governors of the eleven prefectures that currently host nuclear power plants have all decided not to give permission for the restart of the idled nuclear reactors in their areas. Many said explicitly that they did so because of Kan’s public statement. While private utility companies do not actually need the permission of local officials, no utility company has restarted without it.

Even before the prime minister made his announcement, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA) had asked for a new, two-stage “stress test” for Japan’s nuclear plants, which has no definite timetable. These tests will seek to determine the ability of reactors to endure compounded disasters using computational modeling.

Kan has offered no concrete alternatives to the use of nuclear energy, and despite the broader popularity of his position, opinion polls show that most Japanese respondents want him out of office. With a lame duck anti-nuclear prime minister, various obstacles to restarting plants, and an ongoing disaster recovery, the future of Japan’s nuclear reactors is very much up in the air.

There has been significant domestic concern over the regulatory structure and supervision of nuclear energy generation in Japan. How has the Japanese government addressed this issue?

The government has announced that it intends to remove NISA from its current position within the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and merge it with the Cabinet Office’s Nuclear Safety Commission. Critics have long argued that, given METI’s role in promoting nuclear energy through its Agency of Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE), it is problematic to have NISA located in the same bureau. This is similar to the argument made after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: since the U.S. Minerals Management Services is responsible for both regulating and taxing firms in the field, it could not vigorously enforce oversight. The new Japanese agency for nuclear safety—to be set up within the next year—would also encapsulate various agencies within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) that monitor radiation levels. Japan has seen some success in creating new, more independent bureaus; for example, it set up the Financial Services Agency in the late 1990s to better oversee the fields of banking, exchange, and securities.

How successful has the Japanese government been in communicating to the public about the Fukushima disaster and its effects on surrounding communities?

The effectiveness of the Japanese government’s communications has been mixed, and this may be due to both a lack of actual knowledge about the regularly changing conditions in the area and the various unknowns that no agency can, at this stage, fully grasp. For example, the government seemed reluctant to widen the evacuation area set up soon after the disaster. Officials I have spoken to on the U.S. government side claimed that they advocated widening the area when meeting with their Japanese counterparts, especially after initial maneuvers by U.S. forces exposed them to higher levels of radiation than expected. Both TEPCO and the Japanese government claimed that the initial figures released on radioactive exposure were wrong, showing far lower levels of radioactive contamination than actually were present, because of damage to the sensors in and around the plant.

Over time, radiation surveys have shown that there are various hot spots beyond the range of the 20 km evacuation zone, and the government has offered to compensate individuals and families who voluntarily relocate to new communities. The central government recently announced plans to study both local youth and prefectural residents for the next twenty years to monitor their health over time for side effects.

How has the Japanese public’s perception of nuclear energy changed since the Fukushima accident?

There are three critical demographic groups in terms of public perception of nuclear energy: actual and potential host communities (which have nuclear plants in their backyards), the broader public, and political elites.

Casual observers might have imagined that the most vocal opponents of nuclear energy would be found in communities that have similarly vulnerable facilities or are slated to receive them in the future. This, however, is not the case. To induce cooperation from host communities, the Japanese government has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives, loans, infrastructure, and assistance. Working through official government agencies, such as ANRE, the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, the Japan Industrial Location Center, and the Center for the Development of Power Supply Regions, the central government has tried to bring the opinions of these communities in line with national energy plans. As a result, the actual and potential host communities have been less concerned with health and environmental hazards and more worried about the loss of revenue streams, taxes, and jobs.

While those residents most at risk from nuclear power have said little, broader public opinion polls have revealed a gradual and clear movement toward anti-nuclear sentiment without large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations. Recent polls conducted in early July show that roughly 70% of Japanese respondents favor ending Japan’s use of nuclear power and seeking alternative energy sources and higher levels of energy efficiency.

Among political elites, the prime minister himself and the governors of prefectures with nuclear power plants have been increasingly anti-nuclear in recent days. While the current prime minister may not be in office much longer, the next administration will need to set out a clear and well-conceived plan for Japan’s energy policy.

Dr. Aldrich is the author of the recent book Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West. To learn more about his research on Japanese civil society, nuclear power, and disaster relief, please visit his website here.

Chris Acheson is an Intern at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He is a recent graduate of the University of Washington, and will be entering the London School of Economics in fall 2011.

This interview was produced by the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.