The Triple Disaster of March 2011 and Its Impact on Japanese Politics and Economy
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1. The triple disaster of March 2011 and its impact on Japanese politics and economy The triple disaster: earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident. The earthquake and tsunami caused extensive and severe structural damage in north-eastern Japan, including heavy damage to roads and railways as well as fires in many areas, and a dam collapse. Naoto Kan said, “In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.” Around 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water. The tsunami caused nuclear accidents, primarily the level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and the associated evacuation zones affecting hundreds of thousands of residents. Japan’s economy was dealt a devastating blow by the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that pummeled the country. An estimated 20,000 were dead or missing, and at least 300,000 were displaced.
Many of the people in the area were elderly, and cold weather and disrupted transportation routes made rescue efforts difficult. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami included both a humanitarian crisis and massive economic impacts. The tsunami created over 300,000 refugees in the Tōhoku region of Japan, and resulted in shortages of food, water, shelter, medicine and fuel for survivors. Fuel shortages hampered relief actions. In the first week after the earthquake, supplies of food, water, and medicine had been held up because of a fuel shortage and the weather condition. Following the earthquake some analysts were predicting that the total recovery costs could reach ¥10 trillion ($122 billion); however, by 12 April 2011 the Japanese government estimated that the cost of just the direct material damage could exceed ¥25 trillion ($300 billion). Japan’s real gross domestic product contracted 3.7% for the quarter of January to March 2011. The northern Tōhoku region, which was most affected, accounts for about 8% of the country’s gross domestic product, with factories that manufacture products such as cars and beer, as well as energy infrastructure.
An estimated 23,600 hectares of farmland, mostly rice paddies, were damaged by the tsunami. Salt left in the soil by the seawater could adversely affect rice crops for years. The affected area accounts for as much as 3%–4% of Japan’s rice production. The earthquake and tsunami have had significant immediate impacts on businesses such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, which completely suspended auto production. The reconstruction of damaged areas in Tōhoku beginning in 2011 produced a boom in construction jobs and business in the area. As a result, cities like Sendai benefited from an increase in residents and wages for construction-related jobs rose. By March 2012, 644 companies in Japan had been forced into bankruptcy by the disaster. To make things worse, radiation contamination was added to their concerns. The earthquake and resultant tsunami were bad enough caused a radioactive leak at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Japan classified this nuclear disaster as a 7, the same level as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986).
In Japan, although workers were initially unable to stop radioactive leaks at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, only 1/10 the level of radiation was emitted. However, radiation continued to leak into the Pacific Ocean, raising levels to 4,000 times the legal limit. It took months to stop the leak. Radiation showed up in local milk and vegetables, and briefly appeared in Tokyo’s drinking water. Japan’s nuclear industry supplied a third of the country’s electricity. In total, 11 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were closed immediately following the earthquake. The capacity to produce electricity was reduced by as much as 40%, and has remained at less than 80% of pre-quake levels.
The World Bank estimated that Japan’s disaster would cost between 100-300 billion $, and take five years to rebuild. Although the Bank of Japan provided market liquidity to ensure the stability of financial markets, the long-term impact has been negative to the country’s struggling economy. Rebuilding will lift the economy a bit, but it will be outweighed by the probable increase to the national debt — already twice as big as Japan’s annual economic output. The quake and tsunami damaged or closed down key ports, and some airports shut briefly. This disrupted the global supply chain of semiconductor equipment and materials. Japan manufactures 20% of the world’s semiconductor products, including NAND flash, an indispensable electronic part of Apple’s iPad. Japan also supplies the wings, landing gears and other major parts of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Automakers Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi and Suzuki temporarily suspended production. A total of 22 plants, including Sony, were shut in the area. 2. Japan’s energy policy after Fukushima disaster
The country lacks significant domestic reserves of fossil fuel, except coal, and must import substantial amounts of crude oil, natural gas, and other energy resources, including uranium. Japan relied on oil imports to meet about 42% of its energy needs in 2010. Japan was also the first coal importer in 2010 (about 20% of total world coal import), and the first natural gas importer (12.1% of world total gas import). With 54 active nuclear power generating reactor units in 2009, that year Japan ranked third in the world in that respect, after the United States (104 reactors) and France (59). Almost 30% of its electricity production was from nuclear plants, compared to 76% for France and 19% for the United States. However post earthquake all plants eventually shut down in 2012 and currently produces no nuclear power. Although Japan was a late starter in this field, it finally imported technology from the United States and obtained uranium from Canada, France, South Africa, and Australia.
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami some nuclear reactors were damaged, causing much uncertainty and fear about the release of radioactive material, as well as highlighting the ongoing concerns over Japanese nuclear seismic design standards. On 5 May 2012 Japan shut down the last nuclear reactor, the first time there has been no nuclear power production since 1970. On 16 June Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the restart of Ohi nuclear plant’s reactors number 3 and 4, saying that people’s livelihood needs to be protected. In 2012, the government announced plans to build experimental tidal power and wave power plants in coastal areas. Construction on the projects, the locations for which have not been determined, would begin in 2013. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, and the nuclear disasters that resulted from it, Japan generated 30% of its electrical power from nuclear reactors and planned to increase that share to 40%. Nuclear energy was a national strategic priority in Japan, but there had been concern about the ability of Japan’s nuclear plants to withstand seismic activity.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused the failure of cooling systems at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and a nuclear emergency was declared. This was the first time a nuclear emergency had been declared in Japan, and 140,000 residents within 20 km of the plant were evacuated. The total amount of radioactive material released is unclear, as the crisis is ongoing. As of June 2011, “more than 80% of Japanese now say they are anti-nuclear and distrust government information on radiation”. As of October 2011, there have been electricity shortages, but Japan survived the summer without the extensive blackouts that had been predicted. Many of Japan’s nuclear plants have been closed, or their operation has been suspended for safety inspections. Despite protests, on 1 July 2012 unit 3 of the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant was restarted. As of September 2012, Ōi units 3 and 4 are Japan’s only operating nuclear power plants, although the city and prefecture of Osaka have requested they be shut down.
The former prime minister Naoto Kan “declare the need for Japan to end its reliance on atomic power and promote renewable sources of energy such solar that have long taken a back seat in the resource-poor country’s energy mix”. Long one of the world’s most committed promoters of civilian nuclear power, the negative impact of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has changed attitudes in Japan. Political and energy experts describe “nothing short of a nationwide loss of faith, not only in Japan’s once-vaunted nuclear technology but also in the government, which many blame for allowing the accident to happen”. Sixty thousand people marched in central Tokyo on 19 September 2011, chanting “Sayonara nuclear power” and waving banners, to call on Japan’s government to abandon nuclear power, following the Fukushima disaster. On September 19, 2012, the Japanese cabinet approved a new energy policy built around the Energy and Environment Council’s Innovative Strategy of Energy and Environment.
The strategy sets forth three basic goals: (1) reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy to zero no later than the 2030s, (2) accomplishing a “green energy” revolution, and (3) ensuring stable energy supply. Unfortunately, the plan is fraught with internal contradictions and deplorably weak on strategically sound solutions for procuring a stable supply of fossil fuels until the envisioned transition is achieved. While the plan calls for zero dependence on nuclear energy and pledges to limit the operation of reactors to 40 years, it also says that operations may be resumed for any reactors whose safety is confirmed by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority. If the nation’s nuclear power plants are to resume operations, then it is essential for Japan to establish its own closed nuclear fuel cycle and find an answer to the problem of nuclear waste disposal. Yet the new strategy offers no new plans for reprocessing or disposal, merely a description of the status quo. It calls for development of renewable energy, such as geothermal and solar power and river-water heat exchange technology, yet provides no indication of how these projects are to be financed.
While acknowledging the ongoing need for a stable supply of low-cost energy, it proposes nothing more concrete than upgrading and expanding thermal power generation facilities and cogeneration systems that generate both power and heat from one fuel source. Japan’s dependence on fossil fuels has risen substantially in the wake of the 2011 disaster. Under these circumstances, the key prerequisite for realizing the goals of the new energy strategy is securing a stable supply of low-cost fossil fuel, be it oil, coal, or natural gas. Japan’s dependence on oil as a percentage of primary energy use dropped from close to 80% during the 1970s to just above 40% in recent years. This was a result of energy diversification and particularly a shift toward natural gas and nuclear energy, whose shares rose to 19% and 12%, respectively. Nuclear power was the centerpiece of an energy policy geared to ensuring a stable energy supply and minimizing Japan’s vulnerability to policy changes in the oil-producing nations.
The earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear accident in Fukushima have removed the main ingredient of Japan’s long-term energy strategy. (plan: to 2020(40%, to 2030(50%). With most of the country’s nuclear power facilities idled, the electric power companies have sought to avoid power shortages by ramping up output from their conventional thermal power plants, which run on fossil fuels. This has made reliable supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas more important than ever. (increase gas & oil import). In fact, what has saved Japan from the serious power shortages predicted in the aftermath of the disaster has been imports of liquefied natural gas. Between 2010 and 2011, Japan’s LNG imports rose 6.6%, from 70.56 million tons to 75.21 million tons. As of July 2012, most Japanese people support the zero option on nuclear power, and Prime Minister Noda and the Japanese government announced a dramatic change of direction in energy policy, promising to make the country nuclear-free by the 2030s.
There will be no new construction of nuclear power plants, a 40-year lifetime limit on existing nuclear plants, and any further nuclear plant restarts will need to meet tough safety standards of the new independent regulatory authority. The new approach to meeting energy needs will also involve investing $500 billion over 20 years to commercialize the use of renewable energy sources such as wind power and solar power. On 16 December, there was a general election in Japan. Voters gave the LDP a landslide victory. Shinzō Abe (LDP) was elected prime minister of Japan. The LDP has governed Japan almost uninterrupted for half a century.
Abe said he wanted more nuclear power. A survey of local mayors by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in January 2013 found that most of them from cities hosting nuclear plants would agree to the reactors being restarted, provided the government could guarantee the safety of the facilities. LDP: pro-nuclear policy (go ahead with nuclear power), to save Japanese economy, pressure from the business community (Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toshiba), export nuclear energy The LDP traditionally identified itself with a number of general goals: rapid, export-based economic growth; close cooperation with the United States in foreign and defense policies; and several newer issues, such as administrative reform.