A Critical Look At Japan's Nuclear Energy Usage

Chiamaka Agali
May 28, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Japan's Use of Nuclear Energy

Fig. 1: Typical BWR (Boiling Water Reactor) Model. [11] (Courtesy of the NRC. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Starting in 1954, Japan has cultivated one the largest nuclear energy programs globally. [1] Only third to the United States and France, Japan has relied heavily on nuclear energy. From the Tōkai Nuclear Power Plant (1966) to the Shika 2 Nuclear Power Plant (2006), Japan has created 54 generators to meet its energy needs. [1] At their peak usage in March 2011, these nuclear power plants powered a third of the nation's electricity supply. [2] The Japanese government had bigger plans for the country's nuclear energy program. They hoped to have built more generators by 2030 that would help power 50% of the country's energy needs.

However, Japan's usage of nuclear energy is complicated as it was successful. A resource poor nation, Japan was running out of coal and had no oil or natural gas during the late 50s. [2] Combined with their spirit of innovation and technological advancement, they quickly adopted nuclear energy as a way to meet their needs despite the atomic bombs that led to calamitous radiation affects. Overall, Japan was driven by its lack of resources and need to reduce its international dependency to build up such a formidable nuclear energy program.

Fukushima's Effect on the Japanese View on Nuclear Energy

Everything changed for Japan on 11 March 2011. Following a 9.0 earthquake and a resulting tsunami, Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1, 2, and 3 in Ōkuma, Fukushima Prefecture had a triple core meltdown. These reactors were a 1970s GE Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) design with a Mark 1 containment. [3] Fig. 1 shows the typical design of this type of reactor. Current research has shown that the reactors and the surrounding inactive reactors were able to withstand the earthquake, but it was the subsequent flooding from the tsunami that led to the loss of power in the Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1,2, and 3. The flooding disabled 12/13 back-up generators. These meltdowns led to a Nuclear Emergency that led to an evacuation of all citizens in a 2 km, 3 km, 10 km, and finally 20 km from the reactors. [4,5]

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster caused an increase in distrust in the government in relation to nuclear energy. Following the meltdowns, there were street demonstrations in Tokyo again nuclear power. [2] The increasing anti-nuclear energy sentiment has led to the shutdown of all but four reactors as of January 2017. [6] This has come into conflict with government goals of having 50% of energy needs met by nuclear energy. [4,5] However, a turn over in government leadership has changed the narrative. The LDP Party under Prime Minister Abe believes that nuclear energy can account for 20%-22% of energy needs by 2030. [6-8] Optimistic estimates put that goal at 10% by 2030. [7,8] However, Greenpeace believes otherwise. Nuclear spokesperson for Greenpeace, Shaun Burnie says that "[t]he reality is, they will never get to that 20 or 22 per cent. I think inside Government, there are factions that basically believe that maybe we can reach that target, but a more realistic assessment says maybe it will be a lot less". [6]

To this day, the towns affected by Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster are still barren. Despite the government declaring that it is safe to return, the streets are deserted. Many have placed their roots elsewhere in fear that low does may not be safe. [9] Japan has a long way to go in terms of energy usage. While nuclear energy will probably need to be discarded as a possibility, renewable energy is on the rise in Japan (currently accounting for 10% of its energy provider). [2] Yet, Japan's position as a resource poor nation puts them in a peculiar situation in where if they don't find new ways to generate energy at home, they will have to continue to import oil and natural gas. This is not only expensive, but bad for the environment and does not align with their environmental goals. As nuclear reactors have been shut down, natural gas imports are increasing. [10] However, with stricter nuclear energy agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), and the economic benefits of using nuclear energy, maybe Japan will being to reopen old reactors and build new ones.

© Chiamaka Agali. 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] W. Drash, "Why Japan Relies on Nuclear Power," CNN, 15 Mar 11.

[2] "Electricity in Japan: Power Struggle," The Economist, 21 Sep 13.

[3] J. Garthwaite, "Would a New Nuclear Plant Fare Better than Fukushima?," National Geographic, 23 Mar 11.

[4] K. Kurokawa et al., "The Official Report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission," National Diet of Japan, 2012.

[5] E. Chang, "The Road to Recovery: Japan After Fukushima," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[6] R. Mealey, "The Future of Nuclear Energy in Japan, Nearly Six Years After the 2011 Fukushima Disaster," ABC News (Australia), 4 Jan 17.

[7] H. Takahashi, "The Future of Japan's Energy Mix," Living Energy, No. 12, 68 (July 15).

[8] J. Sao "The Evolution of Nuclear Energy in Japan and Germany," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[9] M. Rich, "The Lonely Towns of Fukushima," New York Times, 10 Mar 17.

[10] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016," British Petroleum, June 2016.

[11] "2017-2018 Information Digest," U.S. Nuclear Regolatory Commission, December 2017.