A nuclear phaseout would also jeopardize Japan’s energy independence by forcing it to import more fuel. With virtually no domestic energy resources, Japan is already the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the second-largest importer of coal, and the third-largest net importer of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Before March 2011, Japan was also the world’s third-largest producer of nuclear power, after the U.S. and France. But with the shutdown of plants after the accident, Japan has been substituting with natural gas, low-sulfur crude oil, and fuel oil. “The reliance on the hydrocarbons makes Japan vulnerable from the energy-security perspective,” says Hirohide Hirai, director of policy evaluation and public relations at the Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry.
Rokkasho is ground zero for Japan’s national security dilemma, but the economic dependencies are considerable, too. Locally, the facility has generated billions of yen in government subsidies and tax breaks. About 200 villagers are employed directly by the facility, while 60 to 70 percent of local workers—about 3,500 people—are employed by related businesses. “It has improved the standard of living of this local area,” says Rokkasho Deputy Mayor Mamoru Toda, who has spent his entire career focused on the nuclear facility. “If we abolish all of the nuclear energy, can we still go on with the prosperity of this country?”
Perhaps not. The mostly idled nuclear fleet offers a taste of life without the atom: In summer 2012, the country faced electricity shortages, forcing the government to push citizens toward power-saving measures such as restrictions on big users and reduced air-conditioning. Productivity suffered as workers labored through sweltering heat. Just in Tokyo, electricity costs, already among the highest in the world, rose by an average of 8.5 percent. Eight of Japan’s 10 power utilities reported heavy losses—$8.5 billion total over six months—from the cost of buying more oil and gas to replace idled reactors. The two profitable power companies had little or no generation from nuclear. All this from a temporary stoppage.
If Japan goes to zero nuclear power, as the protesters and former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda want, the resulting increase in fossil-fuel imports would cause an outflow of national wealth equivalent to 0.6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, according to research completed in January by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. That would lead to an increase of Japan’s enormous $74 billion trade deficit. “You have to pay a lot, a lot, a lot for LNG imports,” Hirai says. “If something happens in the Strait of Hormuz today, that makes—oh, I don’t want to think about it,” he adds, shaking his head.
A nuclear phaseout would also lead to a rise in electricity prices, increasing the burden on households by $10 billion ($115 per household). Japanese businesses would suffer from hiked electricity costs, with an increased burden of $22 billion. The fallout could cost some 420,000 jobs, according to IEEJ. All of that, in turn, would lead to an approximately $11 billion annual decline in corporate tax revenue and what the institute refers to as a “vicious cycle,” escalating the already massive debt problem faced by the world’s third-largest economy. “We don’t want to pursue such a miserable path,” Hirai says.
Towering along the seashore in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture is a 60-foot-tall anti-tsunami seawall. The massive structure—one of many countermeasures that Chubu Electric Power has implemented at its Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station since the 2011 temblor—shows just how far, and high, Japan is willing to go to hold on to nuclear energy.
Hamaoka was shut down immediately after Fukushima, because this region is due for an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher sometime in the next 30 years. Largely considered a ticking time bomb, the plant is probably the last place that should be confident about a restart of Japan’s nuclear power. But Chubu has poured nearly $1.8 billion into anti-seismic and anti-flooding prophylactics to make Japan’s most vulnerable nuclear plant ready to reopen—without any promise that such a day will ever come.
Like Japan, Chubu Electric has other energy-supply options, including thermal power stations and renewable-energy projects now under way. But for now, these can’t cheaply make up the difference. Like Japan, Chubu has chosen to invest in its nuclear power station, despite the safety concerns. It’s for the same reason that the United States allowed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico so soon after the BP oil spill. The same reason that safety concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing are not holding back the U.S. shale-gas boom. Faced with the choice between economic sustainability and the far-off promise of renewable energy, most countries are choosing, and will continue to choose, to protect their economy. It’s a choice that Hiroko Sata, who grew up counting lightbulbs, would understand.
In January, Japan’s new nuclear regulator released a draft of new safety measures, setting the stage in July for a nuclear restart, just a little more than two years after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as Stuck.