The Future of Japanese Energy Post-Fukushima

Evan Burke
December 16, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017

Effects of the 2011 Earthquake

Fig. 1: The Fukushima Daichii Power Plant in 1999. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2010, the Japanese government released the "Basic Energy Plan" for the year, outlining the long-term strategy for the country's future energy mix. The plan described a dramatic increase in the share of Japan's energy produced by nuclear power, from roughly 30% to 50%. [1] Japan was embracing nuclear power as one of the central foundations of its energy policy.

However, on March 11, 2011, this strategy was cast into doubt as a magnitude 9.0 earthquake severely damaged the Fukishima Daichii nuclear power plant (Fig. 1). According to the IAEA in its report on the disaster, the plant lost power and the cooling system for the three operating reactor units failed. [2] The reactor cores in these units overheated and their containment vessels were breached. Radionuclides were released from the plant into the atmosphere - though analysts have been unable to reach a consensus on an exact amount or composition of the radioactive substances released. [2] Prevailing winds blew most of these radionuclides into the Pacific ocean, but some were eventually deposited on land and in the ocean. [2] Radionuclides such as I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137 were later found in drinking water, food and some non-edible items. [2]

The accident revealed the vulnerabilities present in the 2010 Basic Energy Plan. In the ensuing years Japan has been forced to seriously reconsider the way forward for its energy sector.

With one of the world's strongest economies, Japan's energy needs are significant. For most of the 20th century, these needs were met by an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels. However, an energy policy predicated on fossil fuels presents two major problems for Japan. The first is environmental. Japan's energy requirements combined with a fossil-fuel based energy system commonly resulted in high greenhouse gas emissions; the country was listed by the US Energy Information Administration as the fifth largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world as recently as 2011. [3] The second reason Japan looked for alternatives to fossil fuels was its massive dependance on imports given its own lack of fossil fuel resources. A more self-sufficient energy sector would be economically beneficial from Japan, shielding its economy from shocks and surges in fossil fuel prices.

Before the March 2011 earthquake, Japan's plan to reduce its dependance on fossil fuels relied on an ambitious expansion of its nuclear power program, which in 2010 accounted for 26 percent of the country's energy. [4] However, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japanese nuclear energy cratered, as much of the country's program was shut down. In 2010, Japan's nuclear output was equivalent to 66.2 million tons of oil. By 2014, nuclear production levels were negligible. In 2016 they had only recovered to 4 million tons of oil equivalent. [5]

Opportunities for Renewable Energy

This dramatic turn away from nuclear energy has opened up new opportunities for the renewable energy sector in Japan. The country has enormous renewable energy potential; Japan's Ministry of the Environment has estimated its solar potential to be around 150 GW, and the wind potential to be as high as 1800 GW. With nuclear energy falling out of favor, renewable energy looks to be the new way forward for Japanese energy. A few months after Fukushima, former Prime Minister Natao Kan announced a plan to have at least 20 percent of Japan's energy supply generated from renewables by 2020, and expanded the Feed-in Tariff of 2009 to cover all forms of renewable energy. [3] Japan has set a goal to more than double its renewable energy capacity from 39.2 GW to 85.83 GW by 2020. To do this, the country aims to increase its hydroelectric output by 21 GW, increase its photovoltaic capacity almost sixfold to 28 GW, and double its wind capacity to 5 GW. [3] The expanded FIT went into effect in 2012 and has created strong incentives for the adoption of renewable energy. Japanese firms like Kyocera and Toshiba have announced plans to build large-scale photovoltaic power plants, and local governments and municipalities are exploring their own renewable energy projects. [3] In total, renewable energy consumption has tripled in Japan since 2009. [5]

Looking Forward

Nuclear energy may make a recovery in the long-term, but public unease about the safety of the technology post- Fukushima will prevent a significant resurgence of nuclear power in the near future. Japan remains a large consumer of fossil fuels, especially oil, but oil consumption has decreased from 217.7 million tonnes in 2012 to 184.3 million tonnes in 2016, while in the same time span consumption of renewables has increased from 7.7 to 18.8 million tonnes of oil equivalent.

The renewable energy sector in Japan will take time to develop, as it remained relatively ignored during the dominance of nuclear energy in Japan. However, these statistics, and the fact that Japan's 2016 oil consumption mark is lower than the levels achieved before 2011 (despite a near complete absence of nuclear-generated power), suggest the country has successfully been able to replace its nuclear output with renewables and other sources of energy without compromising on its goal of decreasing fossil fuel dependancy. With significant environmental commitments to fullfill and a public and manufacturing sector increasingly accepting of renewable energy, signs suggest that renewable energy will continue to be a staple in Japan into the future.

© Evan Burke. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] J. Huenteler, T. S. Schmidt, and N. Kanie, "Japan's Post-Fukushima Challenge - Implications from the German Experience on Renewable Energy Policy," Energy Policy 45, 6 (2012).

[2] A. Amano, "The Fukushima Daichii Accident: Report by the Director General," International Atomic Energy Agency, STM/PUB/1710, August 2015.

[3] W.-M. Chen, H. Kim, and H. Yamaguchi, "Renewable Energy in Eastern Asia: Renewable Energy Policy Review and Comparative SWOT Analysis For Promoting Renewable Energy in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan," Energy Policy 74, 319 (2014).

[4] D. Cyranoski, "Japan Considers Nuclear-Free Future," Nature 486, 15 (2012).

[5] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.