The Tōhoku earthquake of 2011 was the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history, leaving nearly 16,000 people dead and 2,600 missing in its wake. The ensuing crisis caused by the earthquake and its accompanying tsunami completely destroyed over 125,000 buildings and damaged over a million more. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was one of the places severely impacted by the tsunami, ultimately resulting in three reactor meltdowns that contaminated the atmosphere and seawater with radioactive materials like cesium-137. Although containment efforts have led to a minimalized risk on the part of the populace, the magnitude of the event evoked sizable anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese citizenry, leading to a complete shutdown of Japan’s nuclear plants the year after the disaster. This Friday, however, the Governor of Kagoshima, Yūichirō Itō, approved the reinstatement of the Sendai plant within his prefecture, an important step in the political battle to reestablish one of Japan’s most vital energy sources.
Despite the enormity of the Tōhoku earthquake and the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, nuclear power remains crucial to Japan in its current state, as is evidenced by the state of its energy market following the plants’ absence. When Japan’s nuclear plants were shut down in 2012, Japanese fossil fuel imports spiked to meet the demand, a symptom of Japan’s size and productivity. As a rapidly growing force in the global economy with little natural resources, Japan was relegated to import nearly all of its energy in the mid-20th century, but this changed with the introduction of nuclear power in 1966, which has since provided over 30% of Japan’s energy annually, with plans to further expand to 40% by 2017. Logistically, nuclear power makes sense in Japan because of the island’s restrictive size, but Tōhoku made the nation acutely aware of the potential threats this technology could hold in the case of emergencies.
This isn’t to say that nuclear power is inherently unsafe; in fact, even after being directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima Daini (the sister plant of Fukushima Daiichi) and various other plants sustained very minor, non-threatening damage. Even so, the Fukushima disaster highlighted in an extreme fashion the balance that Japan needs to strike between effective, compact energy and safety. This September in Tokyo, over 16,000 protesters spoke out against the restart of the Sendai plant due to environmental and public safety concerns, with many calling for a permanent separation from nuclear power altogether. The prospect of this demand becoming a political reality, however, is rather low due to the government’s understanding of the issue.
Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, has committed the Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan to apply new, stricter rules for nuclear plants going forward, including the Sendai plant, which contains a few of the 40+ reactors that the government wishes to reactivate afterwards. In the meantime, Japan’s complete dependence on fossil fuels has been costing the nation financially, putting pressure on a system that needs to recover from not only Fukushima, but also decades of costly deflation. If Abe and the rest of his government are to put Japan’s energy troubles behind it, they should take care to value the new nuclear regulations above their ability to quickly restart the plants, ensuring that the tragedy of Tōhoku is not repeated in the future.