Nuclear Histories of France and Japan

Steven Kaiser
March 13, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


This review seeks to explain some of the geopolitical conditions that cause states to pursue robust civilian nuclear energy programs. In order to do so, the review focuses on case studies of France and Japan nuclear histories. In 2006, France relied on nuclear energy to supply 78.1 percent of its electricity consumption. According to the U.S. Energy Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2011, France had 58 nuclear power plants (see Fig. 1). Japan, in the same year, relied on nuclear energy to meet 30 percent of its electricity demand. [1] While both nuclear energy programs are unique, the similarities in their origins provide insight regarding conditions for similar programs to develop elsewhere in the future.

A Study of Japan

Japan's nuclear history began before the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Imperial government funded two research efforts to create an atomic weapon during World War II. [2] These efforts, however, were disbanded during the American Occupation until 1952 when US President Eisenhower made his "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations. At this time, Japan was already far along in its ambitious economic recovery plan that witnessed double-digit economic growth by the 1950s. [2] However, such efforts required immense amounts of electricity and Japan is naturally energy resource-scarce. In 2015, for example, Japan was the world's largest liquefied natural gas importer, second-largest coal importer, and third-largest net importer of crude oil and oil products. [3] Further, alternative energy sources were either unavailable or already pursued to their tenable extent. Hydroelectric plants were not viable due to a lack of potential locations and droughts. Routes for coal importation were largely blocked by China's civil war and communist allegiance, not to mention American bombers destroyed many of Japan's coal plants during the war. [2] Despite significant public displays opposed to a civilian nuclear program and the fresh scars from not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also the Unlucky Dragon fishing boat incident - in which a US nuclear test dusted Japanese fishermen with radioactive ash - the push for a robust nuclear program was successful.

A Study of France

France's nuclear history began as early as 1890, when Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. However, France's modern nuclear energy program formally began in 1945 when Charles de Gaulle created the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique (CEA), a government agency mandated to conduct applied research into the design of nuclear reactors, manufacturing integrated circuits, and other areas. [4] In 1956 the first all-French commercial nuclear reactor project was launched, with completion in 1964. However, the robustness of France's nuclear program today was not developed until 1974. The French government launched an aggressive nuclear power program, based on the promising pressurized-water reactor American technology, which led to the standardization of the French nuclear reactor program. Such standardization made it much easier to replicate and operate power plants, thereby reducing costs and safety risks. [4] The plan, which was referred to as the Messmer Plan after Prime Minister Pierre Messmer, was a direct result of the 1973 oil crisis. [5] The extensive program in France today was inspired by the desire to be energy independent, specifically from the instability of oil in the Middle East.


Both the experiences of Japan and France contribute significantly to a model of predicting future commercial nuclear programs. As both histories demonstrate, nuclear power programs are sought when energy independence is crucial. In Japan's case, energy independence was required to meet radical economic and industrial development demand. Nuclear energy, in this case, provided an opportunity for a resource-scarce nation to produce electricity domestically. Also, the creation of a nuclear program created a significant amount of jobs in order to build and operate the nuclear facilities, which contributed to the economic development goals of the state. The oil crisis in 1973 created similar conditions that led to the creation of France's robust nuclear program. In France's case, however, the drive was chiefly national security. In an industrial world, energy independence is a form of national security. One can gather from the comparison, that nuclear energy programs are most-likely to take root in states with limited domestic energy resources, powerful research and scientific institutions, economic development that outpaces energy availability, and during times of geopolitical crisis, when foreign energy sources are unstable or inoperable.

© Steven Kaiser. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2030," International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA-RDS-1/27, July 2007.

[2] S. E. Pickett, "Japan's Nuclear Energy Policy: From Firm Commitment to Difficult Dilemma Addressing Growing Stocks of Plutonium, Program Delays, Domestic Opposition and International Pressure," Energy Policy 30, 1337 (2002).

[3] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy," British Petroleum, 1 Jun 15.

[4] "Nuclear Power in France," Nuclear Service, French Embassy in Washington, July 2013.

[5] J. M. Jasper, Nuclear Politics: Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France (Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 148.