Naomi Hirose, the president of the infamous Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), recently expressed his optimism in a Wall Street Journal interview that his company was “making progress in persuading the local community to accept the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant on the Japan Sea coast”. The power plant in question was shut down in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which not only devastated the public image of TEPCO but shattered the already-shaky faith that the people of Japan had in nuclear power. In terms of the technical process involved, restarting the plant’s reactors is a relatively simple process. The real barrier to resuming operations is widespread public resistance to nuclear power in Japan – polls conducted by Japanese news publications have found that roughly 80% of Japanese citizens are now anti-nuclear, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor.
This was obviously not always the case. The nation was once a leader in the field of nuclear power: it created its nuclear program in 1954, the very year that the world’s first nuclear plant opened. Prior to the Fukushima incident, Japan generated 30% of its energy via nuclear plants, and aspired to reach 40% by 2017 (per the World Nuclear Association). Nevertheless, it is reasonable that the Japanese people are now so skeptical, particularly of TEPCO, which was found to be ill-prepared for natural disaster. While Japanese authorities should be wary of companies trying to jump the gun and restart production to save their bottom line, restarting nuclear production could provide the jumpstart that a lackluster Japanese economy needs. The country recently emerged from two recessionary quarters with disappointing growth numbers, per Reuters, and much of that is due to their new energy identity as a nation dependent on fossil fuel imports. As seen in the graph below, since Fukushima occurred in 2011, the country has fallen into a trade deficit.
Japanese wealth is leaving the country, their electricity prices have skyrocketed (up about 20% for consumers and 30% for businesses, per the Washington Post), their energy companies are bleeding out, and they are now completely import-dependent for energy, all while the country’s massive investments in a network of nuclear plants, which could solve all of the above problems, sits by idly. Japanese legislators have indicated that they wish to make nuclear production a part of the country’s future at some point in the future, as described by the Japan Times, but they have been vague and slow to make concrete decisions. Some may see the cheap oil market as reason to postpone nuclear production, but the process of inspecting and approving the country’s plants to re-open could take years to complete, by which point most certainly expect oil to have recovered. In the mean time, Japan should work on public media outreach programs to raise awareness amongst its populous as to the benefits nuclear power could have for their country, with new stricter regulatory standards in place.