Fumio Kishida’s Great Nuclear Leap

A decade after Fukushima, the Japanese prime minister is walking a fine political line to reengage with the carbon-free energy source.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
Then-Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida walks in front of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant.
Then-Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida walks in front of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant.
Then-Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida walks in front of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Aug. 25, 2013. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

A decade ago, the Great East Japan earthquake became a three-fold disaster: A 9.0-magnitude seismic thrust from the Pacific Ocean flatlined more than 120,000 buildings, a 128-foot rush of tsunami waves battered Japan’s eastern coastline, and Fukushima’s 860-acre Daiichi power plant all but collapsed. The ordeal would result in the most expensive natural disaster in history. 

Once the waters receded, so did Japan’s appetite for nuclear power, which before then had made up 30 percent of its power mix. But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may be turning over a new leaf. He is revitalizing a suite of dormant nuclear reactors shut down since the disaster and investing billions of dollars into next-generation nuclear technology. It’s part of a plan to put nuclear reactors back in the resource- and energy-hungry country’s mix. Kishida wants to boost the share of fission from the paltry 5 percent share it had in 2020 to 22 percent by 2030. 

The tricky part is in a country still traumatized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki and rattled by Fukushima, can an unpopular leader nudge Japan back on the path to energy security? In his favor is a global energy crisis and growing clamor to tackle climate change by embracing zero-emission generation technologies, such as nuclear power. Working against him is the Japanese public’s historic discomfort toward nuclear power in all its forms.

A decade ago, the Great East Japan earthquake became a three-fold disaster: A 9.0-magnitude seismic thrust from the Pacific Ocean flatlined more than 120,000 buildings, a 128-foot rush of tsunami waves battered Japan’s eastern coastline, and Fukushima’s 860-acre Daiichi power plant all but collapsed. The ordeal would result in the most expensive natural disaster in history. 

Once the waters receded, so did Japan’s appetite for nuclear power, which before then had made up 30 percent of its power mix. But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may be turning over a new leaf. He is revitalizing a suite of dormant nuclear reactors shut down since the disaster and investing billions of dollars into next-generation nuclear technology. It’s part of a plan to put nuclear reactors back in the resource- and energy-hungry country’s mix. Kishida wants to boost the share of fission from the paltry 5 percent share it had in 2020 to 22 percent by 2030

The tricky part is in a country still traumatized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki and rattled by Fukushima, can an unpopular leader nudge Japan back on the path to energy security? In his favor is a global energy crisis and growing clamor to tackle climate change by embracing zero-emission generation technologies, such as nuclear power. Working against him is the Japanese public’s historic discomfort toward nuclear power in all its forms.

“Energy security and clean energy are, in some ways, competing demands for policymakers. And there’s now a search to find ways of achieving both goals,” said Tobias Harris, a senior Asia fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It makes nuclear naturally a more attractive target.”

At a time of high energy prices, and with concern growing over greenhouse gas emissions, Japan’s public is keener on nuclear power than it’s been at any time since 2011. But that support is contingent. 

It’s still a high bar to clear. At a United Nations General Assembly press conference on Thursday, Kishida announced that he has invited the public and private sectors to invest 150 trillion yen (about $1 trillion) into a new Green Transformation Implementation Council that will “use all means” to establish nuclear power and lay out concrete operational plans by the end of the year. At an energy meeting in August, Kishida repeatedly emphasized the need to speed up discussions to goose nuclear reactor activation. Of Japan’s 33 currently operable reactors, only 10 have received clearance to restart from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA); all were shut down after the tsunami. Since 2011, 24 reactors have been decommissioned, making Japan’s fleet far less robust than it was. The alternative is to rely on imported gas or coal—neither of which helps the government-mandated climate targets of emissions neutrality by mid-century and both of which plays havoc with the budget.

At a time of high energy prices and with concern growing over greenhouse gas emissions, Japan’s public is keener on nuclear power than it’s been at any time since 2011. But that support is contingent. 

“One on hand, yes, the public is more open to [nuclear power]. On the other hand, if it looks like the government is pressuring regulators to cut corners, you can easily imagine the numbers shifting in a negative direction again,” Harris said.

Currently, nine nuclear reactors are under review by the NRA, and Japanese policymakers are wrestling with whether to extend the operating licenses of their current power plants, which has been done routinely in France and the United States, two of the biggest operators of nuclear power in the world. 

Meanwhile, Japan continues to be the largest importer of liquified natural gas (LNG) and the third-largest importer of coal in the world. Amid indirect effects of the global energy crisis, the clock is ticking for Japan to find homegrown solutions.

“Depending on the situation in Ukraine and economic trends in China, the supply of LNG can be at risk this winter and next,” said John Kotek, the senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, which lobbies for nuclear power. “They need to make more progress in restarting nuclear power plants. Certainly more plants need to be brought online than are currently in operation.”

Japan has few other choices for anything approaching energy security. Given its small size and dense population, the country can’t harness wind power, solar power, or other green-energy resources in quite the same way as countries with a larger size or open landscapes; there are no windswept Great Plains in Kyushu island. The United States plans to build thousands of offshore wind turbines off both of its ocean coasts. Japan is roughly the same size as California with over three times the population, making the country dependent on importing 90 percent of its total energy in part due to its sheer lack of space.

Further eco-friendly investments and measures are still to be determined by the end of the year from Kishida’s Green Transformation Implementation Council, which was founded in July but has already experienced rocky leadership changes after Japanese Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda stepped down from his role as green transformation minister in part due to his ties to the Unification Church. In his stead, Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura has taken on both roles and is already pushing a pro-nuclear reactor restart agenda—and quickly.

Fukushima Daiichi, the reactor at the heart of Japan’s most recent nuclear trauma, may be out of commission, but the ghosts of its cataclysm aren’t. Cleaning up the damaged reactors will still take another 30 years, and radioactive water will be dumped into the Pacific Ocean starting in 2023. But there are no easy answers for an island nation with no gas, little coal, and a voracious appetite.

Energy security “is a concern that will never really go away unless Japan somehow finds a source of free energy and energy storage,” Harris said. “But barring that, these concerns are going to be with Japanese decision-makers for a long time.”

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk Instagram: @kellyruthk

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