Five years have passed since the nuclear disaster at Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi. The aftermath of this disaster is still heavily affecting Japan. This catastrophe has almost put an end to the use of nuclear power in Japan, since the general public expressed fear and distrust towards all remaining nuclear power plants in Japan – both operational and those under construction. Under this amount of pressure the Japanese government had little choice but to stop all existing reactors to conduct a thorough check of their safety. Moreover, the construction of new reactors was brought to a screeching halt. However, there’s an ever increasing amount of voices that suggest that Japan should abandon the use of nuclear power completely, switching to the use of hydrocarbon fuel, which can only be achieved by 2030.
But once the panic settled down, emotions gave way to the understanding that Japan is a country with a large population with immense energy needs. Since Japan has no natural resources to speak of, it can hardly afford to turn its back on relatively cheap nuclear power. Once nuclear power plants ceased producing electricity in 2012, Japan was fast to experience the unpleasant consequences of a such a decision, including a drop in goods production and the transfer of such operations abroad which immediately resulted in the drop of the country’s GDP. This is not surprising, since there were 54 operational reactors in Japan before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster , that produced up to 30% of the electricity consumed by the country. Moreover, it was planned that nuclear plants will cover up to 40% of all energy needs of Japan by 2020. Nuclear power plants have been constructed across Japan for decades and a lot of hope was attached to the momentum that they could give to the Japanese economy. Particular attention was paid to the introduction of fast neutron technology, which allows the plant to reuse depleted fuel, while producing only a small amount of waste. Moreover, the government has spent a lot of money to persuade the population that nuclear power is relatively safe. One can only imagine the losses that the Japanese economy sustained after the closing of all its nuclear power plants.
When the shock passed, and the energy and economic consequences began pilling up, the Japanese government began gradually abandoning plans to close all nuclear reactors. The ugly truth is that Japan cannot afford developing without nuclear energy, at least until renewable energy sources are mastered. The Japanese government officially announced in 2013 that it will not abandon the use of nuclear plants, which resulted in the gradually recovery of the economy.
Yet, there’s little doubt that this bitter experience has taught Japanese nuclear operators to pay more attention to safety. In the years when all reactors were stopped, operators subjected them to a variety of checks and have installed additional safety devices to prevent earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters from causing a massive amount of damage to facilities. Causes of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi were thoroughly studied, and the information that was obtained by Japanese scientists over the course of this investigation was made freely available to any member of the international community. After a careful evaluation of all risks, Japan started opening nuclear plants back in 2014 and proceeded with the construction of new nuclear plants. By the end of 2015, two reactors have been made fully operational at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, while an additional five were allowed to move forward. While making the decision on the restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, local authorities made it clear that the main reasoning behind their decision was the high cost of traditional fuel – liquefied gas. However, they assured the general public that the plant passed all tests and is able to sustain the impact of any future natural disaster.
Since the beginning of 2016 there’s been talk of restarting the experimental fast-breeder reactor Joyo that was under repairs after an accident in 2007. Prior to that, only a single fast-breeder reactor remained operational in the whole country – at the Monju Nuclear Power Plant, but was closed in 2015. The use of fast breeders is not simply an economical matter, but also a political one. The fact is that due to the termination of their use, the country has accumulated an excessive supply of plutonium – nearly 50 tons by the end of 2014. This provokes concern across the international community, since plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons. China expressed its deep concern over this very issue at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, when Beijing representatives stated that Japan has enough plutonium for producing a total of 1,350 nuclear warheads. According to the Chinese press, the sitting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shares certain ideas of the members of the ultra-right elements of the political spectrum, and he can take drastic steps to increase Japan’s defense capabilities. However, China is not the only one concerned. In 2014, the US demanded that Japan return the plutonium that it purchased from Washington back in the 60-70s. Japan has fulfilled this requirement in 2016, but after this step it still has an impressive supply of plutonium at its disposal. Thus, the restart of fast breeders is imperative for Japan to restore its reputation in the eyes of other nations. This is yet another reason why Japan cannot abandon the use of nuclear power.
It’s obvious that the decision didn’t come lightly for Japan, since it’s associated with considerable risks. The country is still struggling to overcome the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and this struggle is a tough one. In November 2015, Tokyo hosted a conference on Russian nuclear technologies, where Japanese representatives stated that their nation doesn’t possess enough resources and technologies to overcome the consequences of the disaster. Therefore, Japan turned to Russia for help, quite possibly due to the fact that 500 meter long cracks began appearing in the protective wall at Fukushima Daiichi, the wall that was designed to prevent the contaminated water from flowing into the ocean.
Russia didn’t keep Japan waiting for long, on the same day the conference was held, the deputy head of the state-owned Rosatom, Kirill Komarov, stated that the company is ready to offer Japan capabilities to overcome the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, along with those that will allow Japan to decommission unsafe nuclear power plants.
In fact, Russian-Japanese cooperation in the field of nuclear energy has a long history, and after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, these ties became only closer. For instance, in 2014, Russian companies were chosen to clean radioactive waters near the Fukushima Daiichi.
Japan still has a long and difficult raod ahead of it. It must cope with the consequences of the nuclear disaster to ensure environmental safety, while, at the same time, it has its energy security to worry about. Russia may help Japan in fulfilling both of the above stated objectives, which may give way to the development of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan.
Dmitry Bokarev, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”