Japan Cannot Be Complacent! The Need of More International Strategic Perspectives in Japan's Nuclear Energy Policy Debates

As the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the Japanese government approaches, a new "Outline for Promoting Countermeasures Against Global Warming" was adopted by the government in late March. Among a variety of countermeasures being proposed, nuclear energy is believed to be the most reliable and therefore the most important for Japan in fulfilling her international obligation to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide according to the Kyoto Protocol. In fact the new Outline states that "in order to achieve the goal, it is necessary to increase nuclear power by 30 percent from the level of 2000" and for this purpose, 9-12 more nuclear reactors require to be built within the next ten years.

However, many experts are pessimistic about the feasibility of such plan in the light of the declining public acceptance of nuclear power as a result of recurring accidents in recent years. An increasing number of Japanese people seem to be feeling weary about nuclear energy and turning against it. Something drastic must be done to improve the safety of nuclear power plants and thereby restore public confidence. This is a real challenge facing Japanese scientists and engineers.

In addition to those technological problems, another series of technical issues related to the nuclear fuel cycle, such as the operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant scheduled to be completed within a few years, the implementation of "Plu-thermal" program, the construction of a MOX fabrication plant and the interim storage of nuclear spent fuels, must be addressed urgently. Furthermore, an economic dimension has emerged recently, such as the competitiveness of nuclear energy against the growing tide of deregulation in electricity supply or the introduction of an "environment tax" or "fossil fuel tax".

Each of these issues certainly raises important points requiring difficult decisions by the top management of electric power companies. But when seen at the levels of the nation state, one wonders whether arguments based on domestic perspectives alone does the subject justice. Having spent many years studying nuclear power, energy and the environment from the perspective of international politics and national security, I have become increasingly concerned about the current tendency in this country.

As is well recognized by experts, issues concerning energy resources such as oil, gas and nuclear power are intrinsically related to international politics, and with nuclear power in particular, international politics and national security are aspects that should never be neglected. Based on such a strategic viewpoint, I shall present several issues which, in my view, should be given greater attention by the Japanese people and the government.

(1) Nuclear energy as an "insurance" against international crises

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States last year raised concerns about a possible major energy crisis in the immediate aftermath. While such concerns proved to be unwarranted, that offers no cause for complacency, since Japan now depends on the Middle East for 90% of its oil, reverting to levels before the first Oil Shock in 1973 (it is to be noted that U.S. dependency on oil imported from the region is only about 10%). There are even predictions that some oil producing nations may see a collapse in their political system. One should not be surprised if anything worse should happen at any time in that volatile region.

Furthermore, the seeds of crisis extend beyond the Persian Gulf. The Indian Ocean where India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads, the Malacca Straits where piracy proliferates, or the East China Sea where territorial disputes intensify ? danger lies in numerous locations along the route taken by tankers bound for Japan. The Japanese are exceedingly off guard about such vulnerabilities that exist in maritime transport, but we should be more aware of the fact that nuclear power also plays the role of "insurance" in the event of crises.

(2) Nuclear energy as a contributor to Asian energy security

There is growing concern in recent years regarding mid- to long-term energy security in Asia. China, home to billions and rushing to industrialize at a stupendous pace, is now promoting its conversion from coal to oil, thus steadily increasing its oil imports, while even Indonesia, a long-time oil producer, is becoming a net oil-importer. This will inevitably aggravate the scramble for energy resources such as Middle East oil or oil and gas reserves buried in the seabed of the South China Sea, thereby endangering the energy security of Asia, to say nothing about military security.

Anticipating such an outcome, Asian countries are accelerating their development of alternative energy sources including natural energy such as solar and wind power, but the effects will always be slow in coming. Under such circumstances, technologically advanced nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan should consider it their responsibility to maintain certain levels of nuclear power generation as a means to further reduce their dependency on oil and thus contribute to Asian energy security.

(3) Nuclear energy as a "card" in the international energy market

Nuclear power is perhaps the only effective "card" that a resource-poor country like Japan can play to avoid disadvantageous price negotiations with oil producers and major oil companies in the international market for oil and natural gas. It is this kind of thinking that seems fatally lacking among ordinary Japanese citizens. And here lies another reason why we should retain nuclear power for our own energy security.

(4) The importance of nuclear technology for future needs

It seems that most of developed countries, except France and more recently the United States under Bush administration, are phasing out their nuclear energy programs. But even those European countries are actually maintaining certain levels of their nuclear research and technology capabilities in anticipation for future needs. Besides, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, all categorized as "nuclear-weapon States" by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), can pursue necessary nuclear research and development within their military programs, even if they discontinue civil nuclear power programs, whereas Japan, a declared "non-nuclear-weapon State," has no such option.

Being the only victim of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan, more than any other country, is entitled to engage in the peaceful use of nuclear energy under stringent international inspection and safeguards against military diversion. It follows therefore that Japan has both the right and duty to continue its civil nuclear power activities as much as it can in anticipation of the day when fast breeder reactors become operational at some point in time during the 21st century.

(5) The need for developing smaller reactors for developing countries

In recent years, the need for innovative small, safe reactors is being advocated both inside Japan and abroad. These reactors, the so-called "fourth generation reactors," are likely to be a benefit not only for developed countries like Japan as a solution to the domestic problems of location (they could be built near big cities where most electricity is used), but also for developing countries like Vietnam and Indonesia which are planning to install nuclear power plants in future.

So far, reactor manufacturers in advanced countries including Japan have been building bigger and bigger reactors in pursuit of scale merit. Instead, we should make a further effort to promote development of smaller reactors which are cheaper, easier to manage and, above all, safer, to meet the special needs of developing countries. One can safely argue that it is another responsibility for countries like Japan to contribute to Asian energy security in this way.

To summarize, in debating energy and nuclear power policies in Japan today, there is a tendency to consider only issues at the domestic level, such as those related to safety, economy and the environment, without paying much attention to international aspects of those issues. But we must make total decisions that sufficiently take into account the geopolitical situation surrounding Japan, the international political climate and long-term energy security in the world, especially in Asia. Because one thing has remained basically unchanged over the past hundred years ? the harsh reality that energy resources essential to the survival of any people are in fact Japan's "Achilles' heel".

  Sixty years ago, shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japanese people, amid the acute shortage of oil following the embargo by the United States, used to say that " a drop of oil is equal to a drop of blood". Nearly thirty years ago, during the first Oil Shock, they were plunged into a chaotic situation nationwide. Those bitter memories of pain and agony have long since vanished. Today Japanese, even officials and specialists at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, seem to have forgotten the lessons hard learned in the past. Some boast that we have enough oil stockpile up to about 160 days and the emergency mutual assistance schemes are well established on international agreements. But the next energy crisis, if it ever comes, will likely come in a way quite different from the previous ones. How then can Japan afford to be self-complacent?


The writer is Professor of International Relations at Tokai University and concurrently President of the Japan Council on Energy, Environment and Security (CEES)/ the Japan Forum on International Relations, Inc. He is a former career diplomat, who served as the Director of the Asia-Pacific Regional Office of the United Nations Environment Program and the founding Director of the Nuclear Energy Division of Japan's Foreign Ministry. He holds an LLM degree from Harvard Law School.