Solving Japan’s Energy Crisis

The Fukushima disaster was a traumatic experience for Japan: in March 2011, an earthquake and the subsequent tsunami it triggered led to the meltdown of a vital power plant that left the country in a toxic state. The country’s forty-eight nuclear reactors, once symbols of Japan’s advancement, were shut down immediately. Now, three years later, Japan’s nuclear regulator intends to reactivate a nuclear power plant in order to avoid further spending on imported fuel as their energy supply currently relies on liquefied natural gas. Specifically, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority has approved the use of two reactors at the Sendai power plant located on the Island of Kyushu that have satisfied certain safety protocols. Despite the controversy that surrounds its nuclear program, Japan cannot completely ignore the necessity of domestically produced nuclear power. However, rather than rely completely on either imports or nuclear energy, Japan should diversify its energy resources in the hope of a more sustainable future.

A nuclear power plant located in the Japanese town of Ikata.
A nuclear power plant located in the Japanese town of Ikata. Source: Wikipedia

Currently, Japan is one of the most resource-poor nations in the world. This condition has resulted in its dependence on nuclear power to fulfill its energy needs pre-Fukushima. Japan does not possess significant natural resources of its own and its extremely limited supply of coal, natural gas, and uranium has proven to be a great disadvantage. Before Fukushima, nuclear power plants supplied a third of Japan’s energy supply. The staggering costs of imported energy, particularly liquefied natural gas, resulted in a $3.9 billion monthly deficit in June 2014. Moreover, Japan’s debt is equivalent to 244 percent of its economic output. The combination of the rapidly declining value of the yen and ever-increasing energy imports has left Japan’s economy in dire straits. If the current situation remains, the economy will only sink further. Clearly, something needs to be done.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has been appointed as the party responsible for officially pronouncing plants as safe enough for activation. While the people of Japan still harbor reasonable doubt regarding the safety of nuclear procedures, strict regulations have been put in place to avoid another meltdown.

According to Professor Joonhoon Ahn of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Japan has been working vigorously to update its safety regulations. “They strengthened their regulatory authority substantially,’ he says. ‘Before the accident, they had only a few hundred people working on regulation, but now they have more than a hundred people working for regulatory licensing jobs… it seems the process is very slow, because the new regulatory authority is reviewing license authorities very carefully.” Professor Ahn also suggested that the nuclear plants should be back-fitted to achieve a higher level of safety because of the risks presented by natural disasters.

However, the Japanese people have voiced legitimate concerns about the revival of the nuclear power program in their country. The effects of the tragedy are still taking a toll on the people—the radiation dose emitted from Fukushima Daiichi has proven to be harmful for many local ecosystems. One cannot ignore the facts: the latest information about the Fukushima disaster reveals that both the Japanese Government and a Tokyo based electric company called Tepco have been concealing information regarding climbing cancer rates and contamination in areas surrounding the Fukushima site.

On the other hand, it seems the risks associated with nuclear power have been overblown. Japanese citizens should be reassured by the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency Report. Apparently, as of September 2014, the presence of radioactivity in seawater in the area is low and stable. Additionally, the government of Japan has made an effort to minimize the potential damage posed by radiation by maintaining universal standards for both food and water quality.

The reality is that nuclear energy must be part of Japan’s future. There is no single “magic bullet” that can solve the country’s energy crisis, and that means the Japanese need to explore all of their alternative energy options, including nuclear power.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe remains a strong advocate for the reactivation of plants in Japan. He strives to promote large-scale production and reestablish nuclear plants in order to facilitate the recovery of the struggling economy. It is simply not an option to continue to rely on imports; Japan’s dependence on other nations for energy translates to weakness on a global platform.

While Japan should salvage its nuclear plants and prepare them for reactivation, it should also focus its efforts on the potential of renewable energy. It is well known that Japan sits on the infamous “Ring of Fire”, an area troubled by frequent earthquake and volcanic activity that crosses directly underneath Japanese soil. With the immense amount of volcanic activity in the Ring of Fire, the production of geothermal energy seems particularly promising in Japan. As a result of thermal conduction, heat energy collected from within the earth rises to the surface as steam that is converted into energy through the use of a turbine. While plans have been enacted to open geothermal plants such as the one located in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan needs to invest more in a large-scale operation to cash in on one of the only natural resources it actually possesses.

Credit should also be given where it is due: Japan has already made huge strides in solar technology. The Wall Street Journal reports that Japanese construction companies such as Taisei Corp have already developed zero-energy structures that host solar panels not only on the roofs of buildings, but also the sides. In addition, newly implemented feed-in tariff systems have encouraged more private utilities to pursue renewable energy.

However, one of the obstacles that has emerged in the mass adoption of alternative energy production in Japan is the limited grid space available to store the energy. Many of Japan’s central energy companies have begun restricting access to their grids claiming that their stability is threatened. Kyushu Electric is rigorously monitoring solar projects and claims it will only agree to deals involving 10 kilowatts or less of energy. Nevertheless, Japan needs to invest further in projects of this nature so that it can begin producing its own sustainable energy in a cost-effective manner and thus discontinue the practice of relying on other nations to help meet their energy needs in the long run.

Evidently, Japan cannot cut off its energy imports completely or immediately. But, by distributing its sources of energy between nuclear energy, LNG imports, and increased renewable energy sources, it could pave the way for a greener future. It is true that renewable energy and the implementation of grid energy storage are costly, but with the trade deficit decreasing because of the reactivation of nuclear energy production, funds saved from LNG expenditures could be allocated toward the development of renewable energy.

Featured Image Source: earthtimes.org, 2011