Why Japan is plotting a 'nuclear renaissance' 11 years after the disaster in Fukushima

Earlier this year, Japan's government issued its first-ever power supply warning to stave off widespread blackouts. And there’s concern about it again this winter.

As a power crunch grows and imported energy costs soar, the government is making a U-turn on nuclear energy

Crowds fill a public square, with bright billboards overhead.
A busy night at Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing. There is growing concern about a power shortage in Japan this winter, as the country struggles to meet its energy demands. Seeking greater energy security, Japan is now planning to revive its nuclear industry. (Chris Corday/CBC)

You'd never know Japan was in the throes of an energy crisis from a visit to the electric glow of Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing, with its beaming video billboards and speakers pumping music for the throng of pedestrians.

But the Japanese government has been urging businesses and households to conserve power amid a critical supply shortage, the surging cost of imported energy, and the country's pledge to end its reliance on fossil fuels like coal.

Earlier this year, the government issued its first-ever power supply warning to stave off widespread blackouts, and there's concern about it again this winter.

On top of asking people to turn things off when possible, government leaders have politely prodded them to don turtleneck sweaters and wear layers of warm clothes indoors to cut down on the need for electric heat.

The campaign may not be dimming things in power-ravenous Shibuya, but it's made some people more alive to the gaping energy hole that Japan is in.

"I'm aware of the problem, but I don't think there are many things we can do individually to help," said On Akatsuka, as she stood outside brightly-lit Shibuya station.

"People don't feel a sense of urgency about it," said her friend Kaoruko Amakawa.

The public conversation about conserving energy is far less contentious than the issue looming in the background: To deal with a global power crunch and ensure a stable supply, Japan's government is proposing a significant reversal of its energy policy, and pushing a revival of its much-maligned nuclear industry.

Reactor restarts and next-generation plants

The dramatic shift includes plans to restart nine mothballed reactors by the end of this winter and seven more by next summer.

On Nov. 28, the government presented a draft of its new nuclear policy, which proposes to extend the operational life of Japan's aging nuclear plants from 40 years to beyond 60, if safety upgrades are made.

Perhaps most controversially, the Industry Ministry is pushing to build new ones.

A power plant is shown next to a body of water.
The Japanese government wants to restart reactors at one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which has been offline since 2011. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

The policy says the government will promote the development and construction of next-generation reactors to replace nuclear plants slated for retirement.

That marks a reversal of the policy penned after the 2011 disaster in northern Japan, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

"In order to overcome our imminent crisis of a power supply crunch, we must take our utmost steps to mobilize all possible policies in the coming years and prepare for any emergency," said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a "green-transformation" conference in August.

Energy security push

Only a few years ago, it looked like sharply rising anti-nuclear sentiment would force Japan to completely abandon it as a major source of electricity.

All 54 of the country's reactors were shut down after the core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and regulators introduced stricter safety standards.

Most of them have remained idled for more than a decade or are being decommissioned.

At the time of the disaster, nuclear plants generated about a third of the country's power, with plans to increase it to 40 per cent within the decade.

But by 2021, after 10 reactors had been put back online, nuclear accounted for less than six per cent.

The government's current goal is for nuclear power to be at 20 to 22 per cent of the total by 2030.

Energy security has also become a growing concern because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and to help meet Japan's pledge to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The resource-poor archipelago relies on imported fossil fuels for about 90 per cent of its energy needs, and is the world's largest importer of LNG (liquefied natural gas), a fossil fuel which is primarily used to generate power.

About 10 per cent of Japan's LNG is imported from Russia.

A large group of protesters hold signs.
Anti-nuclear protesters hold signs saying 'No Nukes' before they march in Tokyo on March 9, 2014, ahead of the third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Heavy public opposition to nuclear energy remains today after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which led the Japanese government to promise it would phase out the industry. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

"To achieve energy security through price competitiveness, Japan has no other generation sources except nuclear at the moment," said Ryuzo Yamamoto, an energy security expert and professor emeritus at Tokoha University.

"Energy independence is the most important issue right now, and leaving the Russian influence is also critical."

Hisanori Nei, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies thinks Japan already has the capacity to create its own "nuclear renaissance."

Nei doesn't believe renewable energy sources will ever be able to meet all of the country's energy demand.

"Without nuclear, I personally believe it's impossible to get net-zero emissions, not only by 2050, but ever," said Nei.

Environmentalists have regularly shamed the Japanese government with the infamous "Fossil of the Day Award" for financing oil, gas, and coal projects, accusing the government of not taking climate change seriously.

An aerial view of a power plant.
The Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in central Japan, shown in this 2014 file photo, has operated for more than 40 years. It is among a number of facilities that could see their lives extended as Japan reconsiders its nuclear policy. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Ukraine invasion creates 'political narrative'

The timing of the government's shift on nuclear power is almost certainly linked to the geopolitical situation around the world and shifting attitudes among the Japanese public, experts say.

One poll that national public broadcaster NHK released in September suggested that 48 per cent of people in Japan support the idea of building next-generation nuclear plants, while 32 per cent oppose it, and 20 per cent are undecided.

The war in Ukraine is also creating "a political narrative" for the Japanese government, said Phillip Lipscy, a political science professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto.

The Russian invasion has rattled markets and driven up prices, and concern about sourcing energy has recently led other countries to announce plans to further develop their nuclear industries, including South Korea, the United Kingdom and France.

"I don't think the [Japanese] government's view on this issue has changed. It's much more that this has been the preference all along," said Lipscy.

"But now, there's a sense that perhaps there's more of an opening to push forward with nuclear as one of the pillars of Japan's energy strategy."

People 'should not forget' Fukushima

There is deep skepticism over the feasibility and wisdom of the government's plans, however.

Experts point to the enormous regulatory hurdles and potential legal challenges from local communities that could get in the way, along with the prospect of huge cost overruns for building new plants.

And despite the recent polls suggesting a level of public support, there is also the issue of regaining wide-scale confidence in nuclear power, as Japan continues to reel from the aftermath of one the world's worst nuclear disasters.

An abandoned shed filled with clutter.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at a nuclear plant in Fukushima, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. Many have never been able to return and rebuild. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Trust is a very serious issue right now, and the government has not done very well in terms of communication," said Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor at Nagasaki University and the former vice chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission.

Suzuki says people "should not forget what happened at Fukushima," calling nuclear "a very risky energy source" with tremendous social and economic "legacies" that Japan is still struggling with, more than a decade later.

More than 30,000 evacuees from Fukushima are still displaced, and a decades-long cleanup process is still years from completion, with an estimated total cost of over $150 billion US.

 "I think it's the wrong priority," said Suzuki of the government's shift back toward nuclear power.

"We should put more resources and investment into renewable energy. Nuclear power for me, it's kind of a last resort."


Chris Corday


Chris Corday is currently a journalist based in Tokyo, Japan. He's worked in broadcast news since 2006 as a video journalist, reporter and field producer. Chris has reported on and produced stories for CBC across Canada and around the world, and loves great visual storytelling.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters