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Japan: Japan’s Energy Security Predicament in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Disaster

Japan is the world’s fifth largest energy consumer, and a resource-poor country, which imports close to all of its fossil fuel requirements. Large demand for energy and high import dependence has made energy security one of the top priorities of any government in Tokyo, particularly since the two oil crises in the 1970s. The 1973 and 1979 oil crises caused the Japanese economy to record negative growth rates for the first time in its post-war history. Their impact on the lives of ordinary Japanese remains deeply etched in people’s minds. As a result, the Japanese government adopted policies aimed at improving energy efficiency and reducing the demand for oil. These policies have resulted in unprecedented success. Overall, Japan’s oil demand dropped from 5.4 million barrels per day (b/pd) in 1979 to 4.4 million b/pd in 2010. In terms of the share of oil in electricity generation, oil fueled approximately 72% (340 TWh) of electricity in 1973. This figure stood at 7% (68 TWh) in 2009. Japan’s oil demand by sector has also been transformed as a consequence, with the transportation sector replacing the industrial sector as the predominant user of oil.

Today after three decades, energy security is once again at the center of attention among Japanese policy-makers and the general public. However, unlike in the 1970s when the focus was on affordability and security of oil supplies, the current challenge is multidimensional. While the renewed interest in energy security issues was triggered by record oil prices in 2008, it was brought to the forefront of public discourse in the aftermath of March 11, 2011 (hitherto referred to as 3/11) earthquake and tsunami, which caused a nuclear catastrophe in Tokyo’s Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO’s) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. By October 2011, only 11 out of 54 of Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors are operating.

Consequently, largely absent since the two oil crises in the 1970s, the energy security debate in Japan has been revived in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Some analysts have suggested that Japan should move away from nuclear energy citing safety concerns in an earthquake prone country which lies on several fault lines. For example, the Japanese government claims it is scrapping plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. It is worth recalling that the government-stated plans were to increase nuclear’s share of total electricity generation from 24% in 2008 to 40-50% by 2030, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The former Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the government would have to “start from scratch” in devising a new energy policy for the country. He has announced a major energy policy review that would promote solar and other alternative energies, stating that Japan should increase the share of renewable energy in power generation to 20% by the early 2020s. This is a considerable challenge given Japan’s current electricity generation profile, in which renewable sources start from a low base.

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