Report

It’s Not Techno-Angst That’s Driving East Asia to Abandon Nuclear Power

In the East Asian democracies, nuclear energy is tied to an increasingly unpopular political and economic model.

Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant pose for portraits on Feb. 23, 2016, in Okuma, Japan.
Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant pose for portraits on Feb. 23, 2016, in Okuma, Japan. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Western discussions about nuclear energy in East Asia usually start with the Fukushima disaster and end with efforts to address climate change. But anti-nuclear sentiment in Asia looks nothing like that in the West, where it was birthed during the Jane Fonda era and is still based on long-debunked claims about the intrinsic dangers of accidents and nuclear waste. The techno-angst and apocalyptic fears that have always animated Western environmentalism are largely foreign to Asian discussions of nuclear energy, climate change, and similar environmental concerns.The techno-angst and apocalyptic fears that have always animated Western environmentalism are largely foreign to Asian discussions of nuclear energy and climate change. After all, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, it was Germany—not Japan—that immediately decided to permanently phase out nuclear power, even if it meant that its carbon emissions would rise.

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan may nonetheless take a decisive turn against nuclear power. The reasons have little to do with public fears of nuclear energy but are tied to long-standing demands for political and economic reform. That’s because the nuclear industry in each of these three countries is tied to a highly contested political and economic model that the reformers are pressing to change.

In April, the anti-nuclear Democratic Party of Korea swept to the most dominating electoral victory in South Korean history. In January, Taiwan’s reform-minded Democratic Progressive Party, which has proposed phasing out the country’s nuclear power stations, also won by a landslide. Meanwhile, both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the country’s last major pro-nuclear party, face worsening poll numbers as a major election approaches in 2021.

The proximate causes of these political shifts have little to do with nuclear or environmental policies. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s smashing victory followed his exemplary management of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Taiwan, it was China’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong that heavily tipped the scales in favor of the Democratic Progressive Party, which has taken a far more defiant position on relations with China than its main rival, the Kuomintang. Japan’s LDP is languishing in the polls because of its failure to revitalize the country’s long-stagnant economy, a task made all the more challenging by the pandemic.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the same underlying political dynamics have undermined support for nuclear energy. In all three nations, the nuclear power sector has become closely identified with long-entrenched political parties and the power of state bureaucracies and industry groups over economic life. Fukushima undoubtedly amplified anti-nuclear sentiment in the region, but opposition to nuclear power has been a proxy for political and economic reform for decades.

The nuclear industries of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are the product of authoritarian or de facto one-party states.In all three nations, state-led nuclear energy development took place during prolonged periods of political dominance by conservative parties with strong ties to industry and business interests. In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s and the Korean War in the 1950s, respectively, South Korea and Taiwan were led by authoritarian governments that focused on economic development while severely restricting political freedoms. South Korea only held its first free elections in 1988; Taiwan followed in 1992. While Japan has conducted democratic elections since the 1950s, the LPD has maintained nearly continuous control.

The nuclear industries of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are thus the product of authoritarian or de facto one-party states, where the ruling party passed control over the energy sector (and many other parts of the economy) to state-owned corporations, government-issued monopolies, or quasi-cartels of favored companies. State-owned Taiwan Power Company controlled Taiwan’s power sector until the electricity market became more liberalized after 1995. In South Korea, the government-operated Korea Electric Power Corporation still holds a monopoly on power generation and grid infrastructure; one of its subsidiaries, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, operates all nuclear reactors. In Japan, the power sector consists of 10 regional monopolies that operate in close coordination with the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

And just as the nuclear establishment was part and parcel of postwar economic planning by what were effectively one-party states, opposition to that establishment has become a cause for those who demand political and economic reform.

Evolving nuclear policies in East Asia reflect a changing balance of power that is likely to persist. In Taiwan, the conservative Kuomintang’s aging demographic base and support for closer ties with mainland China now appears out of touch with a younger electorate increasingly distrustful of China and hostile to reunification. In South Korea, demographic shifts and evolving public opinion have favored reforms on issues ranging from diplomacy with North Korea to checks on powerful corporations. In both South Korea and Taiwan, successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have boosted the credibility of reformist leaders.

Even as the nuclear issue is taken up by reform parties, public support for nuclear energy remains strong in South Korea and Taiwan, and has been growing again in Japan.The political situation in Japan, by contrast, is more uncertain. With the pandemic set to erase the LDP’s recent successes in controlling the national debt and boost the economy, the party also faces a leadership transition when Abe steps down after his current term as prime minster, as he must according to LDP rules. But anti-nuclear opposition parties remain weak and have almost no record of winning national elections, let alone governing—an enormous disadvantage at a moment when the economy is struggling, China has reemerged as the region’s dominant power, and the public health crisis is far from over.

Even as the nuclear issue is taken up by reform parties, public support for nuclear energy remains strong in South Korea and Taiwan, and has been growing again in Japan. In Taiwan, 59 percent of voters supported a 2018 referendum to retain the nation’s nuclear power stations. In South Korea, support for nuclear energy dipped in the wake of Fukushima but has since rebounded to around 70 percent. Opinion in Japan remains divided, but support has slowly rebounded since the Fukushima accident.

Given the historical status of nuclear power as the dominant source of domestic clean energy in all three countries and their heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels, retiring nuclear power plants will likely result in substantially higher carbon emissions, especially as regional efforts to meaningfully scale up renewable energy have struggled. In Japan, renewable energy has run into various obstacles, from geography to bureaucratic barriers and an outdated electrical grid. Japanese emissions increased sharply as fossil fuels replaced nuclear energy after the latter was shut down following Fukushima, and they have remained elevated since then. In 2016, Taiwan set a bold goal of 20 percent renewable electricity by 2025, but it has reached less than half of the intermediate target for 2020, far less than would be required just to replace the 16 percent of electricity currently generated by the nation’s nuclear plants, let alone decarbonize the power sector any further.

As for South Korea, nuclear plants provide a quarter of domestic power, while wind and solar generate just 1.9 percent. While the government has set lofty goals for power generated from renewable sources, there are as of yet no indications that the targets will be reached.

Nuclear power will therefore determine the region’s climate footprint for the foreseeable future, regardless of targets and pledges on renewable energy. That footprint is significant: The combined carbon dioxide emissions of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan lie between those of India and Russia, the world’s third- and fourth-largest carbon emitters respectively.

And it’s not just East Asia that will be affected if these countries turn against nuclear power. Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are dominant global players in advanced manufacturing, with South Korea in particular having a long history of exporting its nuclear reactor designs abroad. The loss of these critical supply chains would be a setback for nuclear energy and decarbonization far beyond the region.
Nuclear power will determine the region’s climate footprint for the foreseeable future, regardless of targets and pledges on renewable energy.

The fact that political opposition to nuclear energy in East Asia has to do with the history and power of the industry—and not any great popular opposition to nuclear power—opens up an opportunity for the sector to develop and evolve using different technologies, business models, and market structures. Advanced modular reactor designs, for example, have inherent safety features that could address concerns over possible accidents, while their smaller scale and more flexible deployment would be a good fit for deregulated electricity markets as the region transitions away from state-run models and powerful monopolies. As always, real transparency and dialogue, robust oversight frameworks, and an emphasis on energy security and economic benefits will also prove key to wider acceptance of nuclear power.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created dramatic new instability in an energy sector that was already in a process of rapid and acute change. Even before the crisis, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan were on the verge of transforming their energy markets, with the future status of nuclear power a central question. As the legacy of one-party rule and the planned economy of the postwar era gives way to social, political, and economic liberalization, the future of nuclear energy and climate mitigation in East Asia hangs very much in the balance.

Ted Nordhaus is the executive director and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute and co-author of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Twitter: @TedNordhaus

Seaver Wang is a climate and energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. Twitter: @wang_seaver

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