A June 2 article in Bloomberg by the deservedly respected University of California at San Diego Professor of Japanese Business, Ulrike Schaede, makes the argument that Abenomics requires nuclear restarts in order to work.1 Professor Schaede presents an overview of Japan’s present circumstances on energy, and concludes that “Japan has only one viable course of action: It cannot afford not to turn its nuclear-power plants back on.” In the present article, I suggest that Japan cannot restart its nuclear capacity in the time-frame suggested by Professor Schaede. And drawing on recent research by Japanese and American experts, I shall argue that Japan’s best bet is in accelerating its efficiency and conservation programmes.
The Case for Restarts
Professor Schaede correctly notes that the yen has depreciated over recent months, driving up the cost of imports and especially of imported fuels for power generation. The article declares that Japan has 50 nuclear reactors, which would “provide about 30% of electricity, and 11% of total energy consumption” if they were all restarted and running at full capacity. Professor Schaede warns that shutdowns mean that the contribution of nuclear power is now only 2% of electricity, “with oil and gas filling the gap,” and suggests that efficiency and conservation are not in the cards because “people are already cheating on their 28° thermostat settings while complaining about rising energy costs.” She further adds that restarting the “50 reactors up and down the country” is not a “cold-blooded” ambition and suggests it is not about getting the nuclear industry revived. The author insists that it is “inconceivable that Japan will ever design a new nuclear power plant, and highly unlikely that the two under consideration will ever be fully operational.” The argument is rather “economic-rational: Until Japan has alternative domestic energy sources tied into its grid, there is no choice. Without nuclear energy, Abenomics will fail.”
Professor Schaede argues that “we don’t know about disposing of unused nuclear power plants. So we might as well turn them back on.” But the NRA is a new regulatory institution, one put in place after Fukushima and the exposure of how compromised its predecessor was. The NRA is charged with ensuring nuclear safety, and is seeking credibility both domestically and internationally. So it is compelled to be careful to do as thorough a job as possible, notwithstanding its limited staffing levels and some of its members’ ties to the nuclear industry.3
Second, it is unclear why Professor Schaede argues that it is “inconceivable” that Japan will ever design or build another reactor. To give just one example, the Japanese government is in fact funding research on small-scale nuclear reactors, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s “Integrated Modular Reactor.”4 Moreover, the current head of the LDP Committee on Resources and Energy Strategy, Yamamoto Taku, declares that Japan must pursue nuclear technology and that he looks forward to new nuclear construction, at least underground.5