Japan’s government, until now a staunch defender of nuclear power even after last year’s accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi, appears ready to throw in the towel. It’s not entirely surprising – but a few unintended consequences are worth thinking about.
“It’s important to aim for zero nuclear power over a 40-year period, gradually, in a realistic manner,” Seiji Maehara, policy director for Japan’s ruling party and a former foreign minister, said in Washington on Wednesday night.
With no oil or gas reserves, Japan has long viewed nuclear as a national-security imperative – the only way to reduce dependence on the Middle East, Russia and other unreliable providers.
But, Maehara said at a dinner sponsored by the Japan Congressional Study Group and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, “Although we were told these plants were absolutely safe, we did have an accident.”
Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has been bravely swimming against the current on reopening most of the nation’s 50 nuclear power plants, which were shut after the Fukushima disaster. Now apparently he has decided on at least a tactical retreat.
It’s not certain zero-nuclear will take effect; but if you were looking for more things to worry about, here are some possible effects that aren’t at the fore of the debate:
• Climate change. Nuclear power creates electricity without releasing greenhouse gases. Japan hopes to replace nuclear power with alternative energies, notably geothermal. But in the short run, and possibly in the long run too, the effect of abandoning nuclear will increase reliance on climate-warming carbon fuels.
• Nuclear safety in Japan. Already since the accident, Japanese universities have noted a decline in students wanting to become nuclear engineers. If the government commits to abolition, that trend will accelerate. But if the government persuades voters to agree to the gradual decline described by Maehara, who will keep the plants safe for the next 40 years?
• Nuclear safety around the world. Germany and Japan may give up on nuclear, but the developing world is moving the other way.
Who will be the provider of technology? A likely candidate is China, which continues to build nuclear plants at home and would be happy to export its know-how. Does China operate to the same safety standard as Japan?
I don’t know – and given the absence of any democratic accountability in China, there’s no way for other outsiders to know, either.Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.