Japan has lost confidence in nuclear power following a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, forcing the country to rethink its long-term energy plan, the Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles said June 16, 2011, at Thunderbird School of Global Management.
“Before the earthquake and this nuclear incident, the Japanese public showed rather constant support for nuclear utilization,” said Junichi Ihara, who was appointed Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles in April 2008. “After this incident the support of the public is a little bit shaky.”
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami came about one year after Japan unveiled ambitious plans to double its nuclear energy output by 2030. Nuclear plants, which produced 26 percent of Japanese electricity in 2007, would have produced half of Japanese electricity within 20 years.
Renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources also would have doubled in 20 years from 9 percent to about 20 percent of Japan’s electricity mix. The result would have been less reliance on coal, oil and liquefied natural gas.
But those plans now seem unlikely, Ihara said. A wall of water 40 feet high slammed into the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, damaging multiple reactors and causing widespread contamination. Ihara said about 70 percent of Japanese now oppose increased reliance on nuclear energy, according to one recent newspaper poll.
“This is a difficult question that will require serious political, economic and other discussion,” Ihara said.
Many of Japan’s 54 nuclear plants closed for inspection in the aftermath of the earthquake, and only 19 were in operation this week. Ihara said some of these plants are ready to resume energy production but face resistance from local governments. “To resume the operation we need local government approval,” he said. “We do not know if local governments will give the OK.”
Some groups are calling for the closure of all Japanese nuclear plants, but Ihara said this would be unrealistic. “We depend on nuclear energy for 26 percent of our electricity,” he said. “So we cannot get rid of nuclear power immediately.”
Another challenge for Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake is financing the reconstruction. Ihara said Japan’s public debt was about two times its gross domestic product before the earthquake, which makes it difficult for the country to borrow to pay for new infrastructure. He said the inevitable solution will be higher taxes.
“Even before the earthquake, we had this public debt issue,” he said. “But somebody has to finance to reconstruct the damaged areas.”