Japan — Short- and Long-term Energy Risks

2012•10•01 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

There is intense on-going debate in Japan about the future of the country’s nuclear energy programme. Initially, it looked like a decision had been made to shift away from nuclear power completely by 2040, but then the Cabinet failed to clarify and uphold that commitment, leaving space for future u-turns.

The initial government announcement attracted criticism from the business sector and raised concerns with Japan’s Western allies, namely the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Over at the Guardian, Mark Lynas warned that by abandoning nuclear energy the battle against global warming would be as good as lost and argued that a decision to go without nuclear would be madness.

In my view, Lynas is misguided, over-estimates the contribution that nuclear makes to our global primary energy supply and carelessly dismisses the views of the Japanese population. Yes, it is true, as he claims, that “…more people die each day from coal pollution than have been killed by nuclear power in 50 years of operation”. But he is missing the point. Having suffered the dramatic economic, social and environmental consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the vast majority of people in Japan do not want to subject others to the same fate, especially their own children and future generations.

Further, after the Tohoku earthquake, the attention of seismologists in Japan has shifted to the Nankai Trough as the site of the next mega-quake. Forecasts of the impact of a quake in this zone have been revised and there is concern that “an earthquake with an intensity of 7 — the highest level on the Japanese seismic scale — could devastate an area 20 times larger than previously predicted”. This would result in a tsunami as high as 34 meters in some locations and of at least 10 meters in 90 municipalities in 11 prefectures.

[quote quote=”That is the real energy security issue for Japan — its reliance on foreign oil, gas and coal. Keeping nuclear as part of Japan’s energy equation does little to ameliorate the short- and long-term risks associated with this dependency.” type=”text” ]

One nuclear facility that would be vulnerable to such a quake is Hamaoka, located in Shizuoka Prefecture. A nuclear accident at this facility would entail significant human and economic costs. Even before the Fukushima nuclear accident, Hamaoka was described as the most dangerous nuclear power station in Japan because it sits directly over the subduction zone near the junction of two plates. Further, a recent study indicated that, including Hamaoka, there are 7 sites (with a total of 19 reactors) at risk from tsunami in Japan.

In this context, it is easy to understand the Japanese public concern about the risks of maintaining nuclear energy in their earthquake prone country.

Taking nuclear out of Japan’s energy equation

In defense of maintaining the nuclear programme, the issue of energy security was put forward by Prime Minister Noda as recently as June 2012. However, nuclear only accounts for 13 percent of Japan’s primary energy consumption. The vast majority, a staggering 82 percent in 2010, is from fossil fuel sources, of which oil accounts for 42 percent.

That is the real energy security issue for Japan — its reliance on foreign oil, gas and coal. Keeping nuclear as part of Japan’s energy equation does little to ameliorate the short- and long-term risks associated with this dependency. To date, the approach to reducing energy related risks for Japan has been to diversify its energy use. From hereon, however, the only sensible way forward should involve the total transformation of Japan’s entire energy system — an energy revolution. The starting point of this revolution should have been the decision to shift away from nuclear.

Let’s look at the problem from another perspective. Japan consumes close to 4.5 million barrels of oil each day. It is the third largest oil consumer in the world after the US and China. Further, 82 percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East, making it vulnerable to any conflicts in that region.

It is essential that we understand the changes underway in relation to global and Middle Eastern oil supplies and the potential for a production peak, or even disruptions in supply. Oil is the lifeblood of our economy — cut it off or reduce the supply and the global economy will go into shock.

In this context, it is rather worrying to read statements like this in influential reports:
“For the foreseeable future, the world economy will run primarily on fossil fuels, and oil will retain a near monopoly in transportation.”

Such terms as “foreseeable future” are misleading. Many of us can see a future when oil will be in much shorter supply than today and when prices will be much higher. The above statement is from the August 2012 report authored by Richard L. Armitage (former Deputy Secretary of State) entitled “The U.S.–Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia” published by the Center for Strategic International Studies.

The report continues by explaining that “Japan… and the United States increasingly share a core strategic interest in ensuring that shifts in global oil trade do not destabilize global geopolitics and threaten access to, and shipment from, energy suppliers in the Middle East.”

For Japan, and indeed most countries in the world, there are two major energy security risks associated with this reliance on fossil fuels, and particularly oil and gas from the Middle East. The first relates to what is known as “choke-points” and the associated areas of pirate activity on the shipping routes for energy supplies, as shown below.

Source: American Security Project.

Nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a 21-mile-wide body of water. In the event of a Middle East conflict, the Strait is vulnerable, for instance, to Iranian anti-ship missiles. In December 2011, as an example, the Iranian chief admiral explained how easy it would be for his forces to shut down this choke point.

The concerns and actions of Western powers over the nuclear programme in Iran lie at the heart of this warning. In response to this threat from Iran, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies published a report on 6 September 2012 outlining US preventive military strike options against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities.  The report also looked at the options to keep open the flow of energy exports from the Middle East in the event of a conflict but warned:

“Any major disruption affects the entire economy of Asia and all world oil prices — regardless of where oil is produced. It can lead to panic and hoarding on a global basis and the US economy will be no more exempt from the resulting rise in energy prices and limited exports to the US and other industrial and trading states than any other major economic power.”

The report continues by stating that “[e]nergy independence may happen someday, but today it is a foolish, dangerous myth”.

So, this is how the realists see the world. If oil supplies from the Middle East are cut off, however, Japan has the equivalent of just over 190 days of strategic oil reserve held by the government and private sector.  What would happen after that time period remains unclear. Perhaps through rationing this period could be extended, but the impact on the Japanese economy would be dire.

Tensions within the Middle East are high at the moment. The situation in Syria is dire. The strained relationship with Iran is increasing the risk of events taking a turn for the worse.

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and recent UN Envoy to Syria, was asked on the Daily Show to describe the state of the world today on a scale of “peace in our time” to “Oh my god, run!” His response was “We are close to run!”

He continued by explaining that today we are facing very serious problems in the Middle East and that any miscalculation could create a problem that we may not be able to handle. He called for countries, especially those on the UN Security Council, to find a common purpose and to seek unity. The only way forward is for calmer heads to prevail through peaceful intervention rather than military action.

But even if conflict can be avoided there are longer-term pressing problems that need to be addressed. By longer term I mean from now and over the next decade or two.

The longer-term energy risks for Japan

Previously on Our World 2.0 we have discussed the energy challenges facing Japan in articles that pre-date the Fukushima nuclear accident. Back in May 2009, we outlined the implications of the peaking of oil production for Japan and questioned whether the government was moving fast enough.

We talked about the potential of Japan’s next generation renewable energy technologies back in July 2010 and in February 2011 we asked whether nuclear power can save Japan from peak oil and concluded that it could not.

After the Fukushima accident, in March 2011, we asked whether nature pressed the reset button on energy policy in Japan, giving the country a message through the earthquake and tsunami that it should take a different energy path. One month later, in April 2011, we noted how the impact of the earthquake and nuclear accident could be understood as having similar impacts to what may be expected should peak oil and declining energy happen more rapidly than our ability to respond to and manage the problem.

[quote quote=”If oil supplies from the Middle East are cut off, however, Japan has the equivalent of just over 190 days of strategic oil reserve held by the government and private sector. What would happen after that time period remains unclear.” type=”text” ]

We also showed how Japanese communities might respond, if given the time, to the arrival of peak oil through an article about Transition Fujino — a small town trying to comprehend and prepare for the implications of climate change and the energy crisis. We should also not forget the video interviews we produced with Tetsunari Iida who explained how Japan could become 100 percent renewable by 2050 and with Sven Teske of Greenpeace who argued that Japan could move away from nuclear power completely in 2012.

Quite clearly, as the discussions over the past year around the future of nuclear power in Japan have shown, the shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear power is going to be a huge and challenging task. It creates a lot of losers and some winners. Consequently, the realists might say that such a change is politically impossible and some, like Democratic Party of Japan deputy policy chief Yoshito Sengoku, have described moving away from nuclear as committing “mass suicide”.

However, there are two points to consider. First, the peaking of oil production could already be upon us, as argued by David King and James Murray in Nature this January.  They point out that since 2005, conventional crude production has not risen to match the growing demand.

Others take the opposite view, adding to the confusion and delaying action. Leonardo Maugeri (Italian oil company executive and a senior fellow at a BP-funded center at Harvard University) has argued that an oil revolution is underway and that higher levels of investment and the application of technology will enable global oil output to grow from today’s 93 million barrels per day to 110 million barrels per day in 2020.

Puzzled by these conflicting perspectives, national leaders tend to come down on the side of optimistic assessments that allow them to “do nothing” or very little about energy during their term of office. Bearing in mind the threats to energy supplies from conflicts in the Middle East, this is a dangerous and irresponsible stance to take.

Moreover, analysts have argued that Maugeri’s work is built on overly optimistic assumptions and detailed studies of hundreds of forecasts point to a significant risk of the peak of production before 2020. That does not give Japan or any other country much time to respond and begin the transition to a new kind of energy system based on renewables. Remember also that every country would need to alter its transportation system as well, since modern modes of private transport are primarily based on oil.

Second, most countries, including Japan, tend to have an emergency response plan in place for instances of oil supply disruption. However, as we have noted previously on Our World 2.0, few countries have plans in place to reduce their oil dependency or to promote a shift to a new energy system. Quite clearly, as illustrated by the high vulnerability that exists for countries like Japan, what is required is not some minor tinkering but a complete energy system overhaul.

Key components include going 100 percent renewable, powering down through reductions in energy use and greater efficiencies, introducing new technologies such as the smart grid, electric vehicle fleets and new battery storage systems. Even so, these measures will only partially reduce risk and vulnerabilities related to the arrival of peak oil. There are many other interconnected issues that need to be tackled.  For instance, how do you address food security for an import-dependent country like Japan if the cost of transporting food becomes more expensive as fuel prices rise?

So none of this is new. We have said much of it before in Our World 2.0 and you have heard about oil dependency, energy shocks and so on. Yet, we remain unable to make substantial changes. The initial announcement from Japan to move way from nuclear energy looked very promising. The subsequent attempted retreat from that position exemplifies the immense political challenges we all face.

Prime Minister Noda must be under considerable pressure at the moment (even though he won the leadership contest within his party). He has to set Japan on a new course, towards a radically different energy future. It is a course that not everyone appears to understand. Nor is it a journey that everyone wants to take. Yet, the alternatives do not appear to be particularly attractive and sticking with the status quo energy consumption profile for Japan is quite clearly a serious miscalculation.

Going back to the words of Kofi Annan in his interview “the world is very messy today”. The challenges are great. But we need a vision. We need a solid plan about how we can break out from this energy-insecure situation.

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Japan — short- and long-term energy risks by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.