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Global Japan
MAY 1, 2015

Energy Politics, Power, and Predicaments: Important Choices for Japan

By Robe Ann Paccial

Japan has always been an important global player in technology and industrialization. However, today Japan needs to attain energy stability, enough to maintain its huge economy and manufacturing industry. There is no one energy source that could lead Japan to attain energy self-sufficiency. The optimum choice is to have a good balance of all energy sources available to the country: oil, gas, coal, renewables, and nuclear.

Lady Barbara Judge visited GLOBIS to talk about things every country should consider when deciding whether to pursue nuclear energy: energy security, energy independence, and climate change. Nuclear energy seems to positively answer all these concerns. Unlike solar and wind energy, where production is intermittent and depends on the availability of natural resources, nuclear energy has proven to be a reliable source of baseload generation. A country with a nuclear power plant can be energy independent. In addition, nuclear power production does not emit carbon, which makes its impact on climate change less of a concern.

Why is nuclear such a hotly debated issue?

There is no one answer to why nuclear energy is so controversial. Really, it’s a combination of both controllable and uncontrollable factors which can be summarized in three major points:

1. Pursuing nuclear is a decision made by a country, not an individual.
The decision to develop nuclear energy depends on the government’s will to make it happen. Nuclear plants have long gestation, which means their operations and regulations get reset every time a new government is elected.

The will of the government to promote nuclear energy should also be appropriately regulated. One of the issues identified in the way nuclear energy operated in Japan prior to the Fukushima incident was the close relationship and lack of independence of the regulator and the operator. This issue was, later on, addressed through the creation of the Nuclear Regulations Authority (NRA), which ensures strong regulation and checks and balances in the industry.

2. Nuclear requires thorough project planning.
Building a nuclear power plant requires significant investment. The capital requirement became even higher after the Fukushima incident as stricter safety measures are now required for power plant equipment. Some power plants are built to last beyond 40 years, and with the stable energy prices, developers can expect steady cashflow after their investment is recovered.

However, the slowdown of nuclear in the recent years has resulted in a shortage of nuclear engineers. Demand for their skills has been low, so they’ve had to build their expertise in other fields.

Effective planning is not restricted to capital and staff, of course. The simple matter of location, as we know now more than ever, is crucial. The site will need to be one that can withstand natural disasters such as seismic activity.

3. Nuclear has to overcome negative publicity through educating the public.
After the Fukushima incident in 2011, the media skimmed over the fact that no one actually died as a direct result of the radiation. Decades earlier, the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania was, in fact, a success – the power plant closed down effectively, causing neither death nor injury.

Sadly, people in the nuclear industry have historically not defended their position particularly well against the media. It is the buy-in of the general public that really matters. The public deserves to know not only the risks, but also the many benefits that can come from nuclear power plants, such as job creation and a steady supply of baseload energy. Educating the public by actually reaching out to them is the only way to fix this – there is no short-cut for winning their support.

Moving forward with Nuclear Energy

Japan has been a leader in technology, including nuclear energy technology, for many years. It has helped numerous other nations build their respective nuclear projects. All of this knowledge contributes to Japan’s economic growth.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many communities outside of Japan in which nuclear power plants are greatly valued. Nuclear projects bring jobs, additional schools, and new life to local culture. Lady Judge pointed out that all energy sources have their own inherent risks, and there is no one source that is absolutely, 100% safe. The best way to prevent the risk is to understand the complexities of each source of energy. Today, an array of safety measures have been developed to prevent the consequences of those risks.

In addition, pursuing nuclear energy is a collaborative effort. Nuclear energy requires the involvement of strong independent groups of citizens who understand and discuss nuclear facts. Medical professionals can educate people about radiation. Business leaders can influence the people within their sphere for better energy stability, security, and independence. Government should also continue to take the lead in educating citizens.

Lady Judge further reiterated that “We need people to talk about the facts because at the end of the day, it is the facts that we hope people will listen to.”

Lady Judge and her role in TEPCO

Lady Judge believed that joining TEPCO was an opportunity to help a whole nation. She reasoned that if TEPCO was not able to resolve its own problems, then it would not be able to restart its nuclear energy plants and deliver the energy that Japan needs. Her hope was to create a positive impact that would reverberate around the world.

The Fukushima incident has fueled misconceptions about nuclear energy across the globe. Lady Judge sees her role in TEPCO as a way to get perceptions back on track. Outside Japan, there are still many countries where people do not have access to electricity, education, or other basic human needs. Nuclear energy could be part of this solution.

As Lady Judge puts it, “I am not saying that nuclear energy is the answer. We need oil, we need gas, we need renewables, we need coal, and we need nuclear. I believe that, until every child has a light by which to learn to read and heat so as not to freeze, how can we, any of us, throw any source of energy off the table? It is our responsibility to provide light and heat and help our economy grow.”