Asia Program

Events

Are Japan's Energy Security Ambitions Misguided?

February 28, 2000 // 11:00pm

By Alexei Kral

Michael W. Donnelly, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto
Jeffrey Broadbent,Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota
Michael C. Lynch, Director, Working Group on Asian Energy and Security, M.I.T.
Shigeo Okaya, First Secretary, Science Section, Embassy of Japan
Harold D. Bengelsdorf, Principal, Bengelsdorf, McGoldrick & Associates

In September 1999, Japan experienced the worst nuclear accident in its history. The Tokaimura accident raised public sensitivity to the potential dangers nuclear power can pose for public health, the environment, and international security. The accident also posed new challenges for the Japanese government, which has made nuclear power a pillar of its energy policy. Indeed, one-third of Japan's electricity is now generated by nuclear power.

Nuclear energy policy in Japan remains an extremely complex and controversial issue. Japan is poor in natural resources and now relies on oil imports that are shipped from the Middle East and through the South China Sea, two volatile regions. Tokyo remains determined to persuade the public that its significant reliance on nuclear energy promotes "the three E's," i.e. energy security, economic development, and environmental protection. The Japanese government has embraced nuclear power as an attractive domestic-based energy source, which is less vulnerable to disruption than oil imports. In addition, the government cites nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative that does not emit greenhouse gases.

Significant sections of the Japanese public, on the other hand, are increasingly concerned about environmental and health risks associated with nuclear energy. Criticism has grown in the wake of accidents and cover-ups at some nuclear facilities. In recent years, the construction of new nuclear plants has caused tension between the central government and local authorities and communities. This February, for example, the governor of Mie prefecture dismayed the central government by canceling a nuclear power plant construction project.

Tokyo's nuclear energy policy also draws international attention, particularly from Japan's neighbors. In generating electric power, Japan's nuclear power plants also produce large quantities of plutonium. Japan's neighbors claim that Tokyo has accumulated an excessive amount of plutonium that raises the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, environmental hazards, and terrorism in an already unstable region.

A February 29 seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center produced strong disagreements as analysts, representing a variety of perspectives and analytical approaches, discussed nuclear energy policy in Japan. The first speaker, political scientist Michael W. Donnelly, asserted that the September 1999 nuclear accident in Tokaimura was the most significant crisis any Japanese government has ever confronted in Japan's decades-long effort to meet its energy needs by harnessing nuclear power. As a result of the accident, the Japanese public is more skeptical of atomic energy than ever before. The scope of the accident raises fundamental questions about national policies and practices, he maintained, and will force major adjustments.

Jeffrey Broadbent, a sociologist, observed that the string of nuclear accidents in Japan has revealed a lack of regulatory oversight and preparedness. The basic problem, he argued, is that the Japanese government has not allowed an adversarial regulatory culture with appropriate laws and institutions to develop. He stated that an effective nuclear safety and regulatory commission must be independent, provide full information disclosure to the public, and incorporate public participation.

Energy security analyst Michael C. Lynch argued that most energy security policies are misguided. The problem, he pointed out, is that all energy supplies and suppliers are unreliable, and disruptions in energy supplies are normal. The first policy option for any government is to maintain surge capacity to deter blackmail and prevent price spikes. If that fails, the other energy security policy option is to reduce reliance on energy imports and increase indigenous supplies. This is where nuclear energy fits in, but a cost/benefit test should be performed first, Lynch noted. Lack of transparency in the Japanese case, however, makes it difficult to estimate cost effectiveness. Lynch observed that in Japan nuclear energy seems to be promoted as "nuclear for nuclear's sake." Proponents start with the answer, "nuclear power is good," and then find questions (reasons) that fit, e.g. what guarantees energy security, or what reduces greenhouse gases and global warming. He estimated that about 60 percent of energy security spending is pork barrel spending.

Shigeo Okaya, first secretary in the science section of the Japanese embassy, replied that Tokyo's energy strategy is driven by the need for energy security. He noted that nuclear fuel recycling creates an indigenous fuel supply, which Japan would lack otherwise. Furthermore, environmental requirements under the 1997 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have made the nuclear energy alternative increasingly attractive. In addition, he pointed out, weapons proliferation by Japan is not possible because public sentiment and legal constraints prevent Japan from building nuclear weapons. Finally, he stated that the government has taken measures to prevent similar accidents; for example, it has quintupled the staff of the nuclear safety commission since the Tokaimura accident.

A consultant and retired U.S. government expert on nuclear issues, Harold D. Bengelsdorf maintained that Tokyo's nuclear program has been well conceived and well managed. The nuclear industry, Bengelsdorf pointed out, is judged more severely than most other industries. He cautioned that some evaluators of Tokyo's nuclear energy program have opportunistic agendas, and it is therefore important to "evaluate the 'evaluators'" before subscribing to their positions. He noted that top Japanese officials were shaken by last September's accident and have moved rapidly to make improvements.

While the speakers did not reach the same conclusions on nuclear energy policy, the seminar did open a window on some of the complicated and contentious debates currently alive in Japan, regarding policymaking, economic strategies, decentralization, civil society, and the environment. In the coming years, the continuing debate over nuclear power will offer important insights into broader changes in Japanese politics, economics, and society. Furthermore, in twenty-first century Asia, energy will remain a central policy issue with domestic and international implications.

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