A decade ago, Japan suffered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, when an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing three of its reactors to collapse and sparking fierce public opposition to nuclear energy. This month’s magnitude 7.4 earthquake in the same region could elicit the opposite reaction.
A survey published by Japan’s largest newspaper, Nikkei (link in Japanese), found that 53% supported restarting decommissioned nuclear reactors, while 38% were against. It is the first time that a majority has backed nuclear power since the 2011 disaster.
The Story of Two Earthquakes and Japan’s Tight Power Supply
After the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan moved quickly to decommission its fleet of more than 50 nuclear reactors. In 2010, nuclear provided 13% of its energy needs and about 30% of its electricity. By 2012, nuclear had fallen to less than 1% of its energy mix, according to data from BP’s 2020 Global Energy Statistical Review, analyzed by Our World in Data. While a few reactors have since been restarted, nuclear has been mostly replaced by coal and gas.
While the dismantling of nuclear reactors has lessened the danger of a new radiation crisis, the rapid decline in energy production has led to a supply crunch that has left Japan vulnerable to disruptions, such as the earthquake. of March 17 which destroyed a dozen thermal power stations.
A cold spell last week brought spring temperatures to near freezing and prompted people to turn up their heaters. The combination triggered a power shortage that threatened blackouts in 15 prefectures, including Tokyo. To avoid mandatory blackouts, the Japanese government has asked citizens to reduce their electricity consumption and set their thermostats to 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
Across Japan, neon signs went dark, a TV station broadcast the news with their studio lights dimmed, 7-Elevens was a bit chillier, and Tokyo’s famous tower went partially dark. The energy-saving measures were temporary, but highlighted structural problems in Japan’s energy availability – while it was an earthquake this time, next time a extreme weather event or fuel supply disruption could again bring Japan to the brink of blackouts.
For Japan, as for the rest of the world, the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions have driven up fuel and electricity prices. Even before the invasion began in February, electricity prices in Japan had surged. According to broadcaster NHK, households will see their highest bills in five years this month.
A turning point for nuclear power?
Japan’s energy problems highlight an ongoing debate about nuclear’s role in climate transition. Some governments, the United Nations and the affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency, view nuclear energy as a low-carbon technology that has the potential to provide heat and electricity without fossil fuels. Environmental organizations warn that the danger of nuclear meltdowns and toxic waste outweighs the climate benefits.
Japan has been ambitious in crafting a decarbonization strategy that has included dismantling its dirtiest and most inefficient power plants, and has pledged to increase its use of renewable energy. The country, which feared another catastrophe, has so far steered clear of nuclear as part of its energy transition, but recent events could be the first indications that the tide may be turning.