Western discussions about nuclear energy in East Asia usually start with the Fukushima disaster and end with efforts to address climate change. But anti-nuclear sentiment in Asia looks nothing like that in the West, where it was birthed during the Jane Fonda era and is still based on long-debunked claims about the intrinsic dangers of accidents and nuclear waste. The techno-angst and apocalyptic fears that have always animated Western environmentalism are largely foreign to Asian discussions of nuclear energy, climate change, and similar environmental concerns.The techno-angst and apocalyptic fears that have always animated Western environmentalism are largely foreign to Asian discussions of nuclear energy and climate change. After all, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, it was Germany—not Japan—that immediately decided to permanently phase out nuclear power, even if it meant that its carbon emissions would rise.
Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan may nonetheless take a decisive turn against nuclear power. The reasons have little to do with public fears of nuclear energy but are tied to long-standing demands for political and economic reform. That’s because the nuclear industry in each of these three countries is tied to a highly contested political and economic model that the reformers are pressing to change.
The proximate causes of these political shifts have little to do with nuclear or environmental policies. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s smashing victory followed his exemplary management of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Taiwan, it was China’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong that heavily tipped the scales in favor of the Democratic Progressive Party, which has taken a far more defiant position on relations with China than its main rival, the Kuomintang. Japan’s LDP is languishing in the polls because of its failure to revitalize the country’s long-stagnant economy, a task made all the more challenging by the pandemic.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the same underlying political dynamics have undermined support for nuclear energy. In all three nations, the nuclear power sector has become closely identified with long-entrenched political parties and the power of state bureaucracies and industry groups over economic life. Fukushima undoubtedly amplified anti-nuclear sentiment in the region, but opposition to nuclear power has been a proxy for political and economic reform for decades.