Going Beyond Nuclear: New Energy Security Realities for Japan and the United States

The Fukushima nuclear meltdown has forced Japan to reconsider its energy policy, and as the country continues to grapple with the aftermath of the March 2011 crisis, public opinion remains deeply divided about the country’s future energy policy including nuclear power. The United States, too, is facing its own challenges, as a bonanza in natural gas within its borders in recent years is redefining the meaning of energy independence. How both countries are looking beyond petroleum to meet their respective energy needs, and prospects for alternative energy sources including nuclear power, were the issues at stake at the latest Japan-U.S. Joint Public Policy Forum, held in Tokyo on Oct. 31.

About 150 energy experts and policymakers from both the United States and Japan took part in the day-long conference entitled The Future of Energy: Choices for Japan and the United States, which was the fourth annual conference held jointly by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But while the starting point of the conference was the consequences of the nuclear fallout as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011, discussions ranged far beyond Japan’s nuclear prospects, as conference participants agreed that Japan’s energy future could not be seriously discussed without continual reference to the global political as well as economic landscape.

 A shifting paradigm for energy security

Strategizing Japan’s energy policy based solely on the Fukushima disaster would be a folly, cautioned former International Energy Agency executive director Nobuo Tanaka. In his keynote speech, Tanaka argued that the bulk of new energy needs worldwide comes from Asia, as U.S. demand for oil imports would decrease as its ability to produce natural gas within its own borders rises due to technological advances, while Europe turns increasingly to Russia to supply its energy needs. That would make Asia the only region still heavily dependent on Middle East oil imports, and render Japan particularly vulnerable to any decreased U.S. military commitment to the Middle East as Washington looks less and less to the region to supply its energy needs, Tanaka said. As a result, Japan will need to retain its nuclear energy capabilities in order to ensure that its needs are met regardless of any changes in U.S. military as well as energy policy.

John Bryson, former U.S. Commerce Secretary and Wilson Center distinguished scholar who delivered the conference’s other keynote address, said that given Japan’s limited natural resources, it was imperative for the government to continue investing in the development of “superior clean technology” that would be emulated worldwide. He nonetheless pointed out that Japan must put safety standards above all else, and that public confidence toward nuclear operators must be restored.  

The power politics of nuclear energy

The need for Japan to ensure the public of safety in the nuclear industry was emphasized repeatedly by both Japanese and U.S. panelists. They also agreed that Japan’s abandonment of its nuclear energy program would invariably lead to a loss in its position as a nuclear technology leader, which in turn would cause it to slip in the global hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the Fukushima disaster has had no direct impact on the future of the nuclear energy sector in the United States to date, given that the decline in nuclear investments had plunged in the country since the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979. Any disinterest in revitalizing the U.S. nuclear energy sector is driven more by economics than any other single consideration, according to several participants. With ever-lower natural gas prices on the one hand, and political opposition to dealing with nuclear waste on the other, nuclear operators themselves have been shying away from building new reactors as the allure of investing in costly energy projects such as nuclear reactors has fallen steadily. Indeed, the International Energy Agency has cut back growth projections in installed nuclear power capacity by 10 percent, to 580 gigawatts, in 2035.

Challenges for new energy sources

The Three Mile Island accident led the United States to place a moratorium on its nuclear energy industry, effectively ending progress in developing civilian nuclear energy technology. That, however, has pushed the country to emphasize growth in other energy sectors, including hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, in recent years. Indeed, the International Energy Agency is now predicting natural gas to be the most used fuel in the United States by 2030. Certainly, the natural gas lobby is looking increasingly like its petroleum industry counterpart, and it may well be that natural gas interests will soon dominate the political scene to match their growing influence on global energy markets.

As Japan mulls its new energy policy with the possibility of phasing out nuclear energy altogether over the next decade or two, the challenge will be to see how and whether nuclear power can remain a key component in the portfolio. Technological advancements have, however, already begun to shift industrialized nations away from Middle East crude oil, and that trend is likely to intensify in coming years. The United States will certainly become increasingly less dependent on Mideast oil, and that may have a significant impact on the nation’s foreign military policy as much as energy security policy. What is clear is that the energy security realities of the past are changing rapidly for both Japan and the United States, and will have a significant impact on how both countries move forward in ensuring a steady energy supply.

Certainly, there are opportunities for the two countries to cooperate in strengthening nuclear safety standards both within their own borders, and working through international organizations. The development of shale gas also raises new possibilities for Japan and the United States to collaborate on both development and distribution of energy, as does the development of alternative energy resources including offshore wind and solar.

-By Shihoko Goto

Robert Hathaway, Director, Asia Program


  • John Bryson

    Distinguished Public Policy Scholar
    Former United States Secretary of Commerce