NUCLEAR POWERFukushima Fears Notwithstanding, Japan Still Depends on Nuclear Power

By Nik Martin

Published 16 November 2022

The 2011 Fukushima disaster helped seal the fate of nuclear power in Japan, or so it seemed. Tokyo now plans to extend the life of its nuclear plants and is considering new smaller, safer reactors.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit Japan, causing a massive tsunami that flooded the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

The most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl sparked a new wave of anti-nuclear sentiment and most of the country’s nuclear plants were taken offline for urgent safety checks. 

Within days of the disaster, thousands of kilometers away, the German government announced a 10-year plan to phase out nuclear power, having been lobbied on the issue for decades by environmental campaigners.

New Anxieties Supplant Radiation Threat
More than 11 years on from the disaster, despite Japan sitting firmly in the so-called ring of fire — a path along the Pacific Ocean characterized by active volcanoes and frequent, earthquakes — this summer Tokyo recommitted to nuclear power.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan would restart up to nine nuclear reactors by winter and seven others by next summer, citing the need for secure energy supplies in the wake of the Ukraine war and help meet Japan’s net-zero targets.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has vastly transformed the world’s energy landscape. To overcome an imminent crisis caused by a power supply crunch, we must take the utmost steps to mobilize all possible policies in the coming years and prepare for any emergency,” Kishida warned in August.

Longer-term proposals announced since then include extending the lifespan of nuclear reactors beyond the current 60 years —  which some scientists say will be a lower risk if you count the years they were offline — and developing new smaller, safer, nuclear reactors.

You get the sense that Japan’s political leaders were biding their time, waiting for public acceptance to improve and the broader context to change before they recommitted to nuclear technology,” David Hess, policy analyst at the World Nuclear Association, told DW.

Europe, Asia Tussle Over Energy Supplies
The context has changed. Gas supplies to Asia were already tight last winter due to the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global energy crisis further spiked natural gas prices to record highs as Asian and European countries battled to secure supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative to Russian pipeline gas.

Behind the Japanese decision is also the country’s historic reliance on nuclear due to a lack of conventional energy resources, like oil and gas.

Japan doesn’t have much coal and oil, so they’ve always imported a very large percentage of their energy demand — not only electricity [also transport and heating],” Jim Smith, a professor in environmental sciences at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, told DW.