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Nuclear power's future in Japan and abroad: the Fukushima accident in social and political perspective

The 11 March 2011 triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan has devastated the Tohoku region but also altered the regulatory and market environment for atomic energy around the world. This article looks at the new situation in Japan for local residents and political elites along with the post-Fukushima changes in energy policies for Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Japan and the world stand at a crossroads where decision makers and citizens must publicly evaluate the costs and benefits of pursuing nuclear power.

August 2011
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The 11 March 2011 triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan has devastated the Tohoku region but also altered the regulatory and market environment for atomic energy around the world. This article looks at the new situation in Japan for local residents and political elites along with the post-Fukushima changes in energy policies for Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Japan and the world stand at a crossroads where decision makers and citizens must publicly evaluate the costs and benefits of pursuing nuclear power.

The 11 March 2011 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast set off a series of cascading events which resulted in the deaths of more than 20,500 people along with an ongoing nuclear crisis. The crisis epitomized what disaster scholars call a compounded or complex disaster.

The quake itself caused few direct casualties – fewer than 5 percent of the deaths due to this disaster are attributed to collapsed buildings – but triggered a devastating tsunami which overtopped seawalls, washed away entire villages, swept people and cars out to sea, and damaged the back-up cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex. Of the six reactors on site, the quake’s arrival automatically shut down the three which were operational. With diesel generators and batteries offline, the residual heat in the reactors raised the temperature to more than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting down the zircaloy fuel rods. The fuel pellets, free from their sheaths, fell to the floor of the steel containment vessels where they may have burned holes through the thick steel plating. Nuclear authorities in Japan eventually classified the radiation release from the Fukushima nuclear complex as a level 7 nuclear crisis on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), placing the event in the same category as the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine.

While scientists continue to monitor the health and radioactive fallout from the disaster in villages, towns, and prefectures throughout Japan, the political fallout from the event has reached well beyond Japan’s borders. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel called the event a “turning point in the history of the industrialized world” and many observers have seen it as the end of the “nuclear renaissance.” This may be because, as Ferguson observed, “An accident anywhere is an accident everywhere”. In the United States, for example, the relatively small-scale accident at Three Mile Island in the late 1970s flipped broader support for nuclear power into opposition; as a result of the resulting social and economic environment, nuclear power growth in the US has been minimal for the past three decades. The remainder of this article will explore the choices these actors have made at a moment that Paul Pierson would label a “critical juncture” beginning with a look at Japan and moving toward the post-Fukushima energy policies of other nations.

Residents of Actual and Potential “Host Communities” in Japan

Casual observers might have imagined that the most vocal opponents post-Fukushima would be found in those communities across Japan which already have similarly vulnerable facilities or are slated to receive them in the future. This, however, was not the case. To induce cooperation from host communities, the Japanese government has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars (US) in incentives, loans, infrastructure, and assistance. Working through official government agencies, such as the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE, Shigen Enerugi Chō), the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, the Japan Industrial Location Center, and the Center for the Development of Power Supply Regions, the central government has hoped to bring the opinions of these communities in line with national energy plans.

Through institutions such as the Dengen Sanpo (The Three Power Source Development Laws) along with programs targeted at specific demographic groups such as students, fishermen, and local government officials, the Japanese government has created what some have called a “cycle of addiction” in some localities. As all of the communities selected for nuclear power plants are depopulating, coastal communities with weak economic bases, the benefits promised in exchange for hosting reactors have created a “culture of dependency”. Once a community accepts a reactor, the money provided creates a new level of spending and expectation about continued purchases, and the only way to maintain that budget is to accept additional plants.

Accordingly, residents who bear the biggest burdens of Japan’s national energy policies have been surprisingly mute post-Fukushima. In fact, many local communities slated to receive reactors in the future have expressed fears not of radioactive contamination or long term genetic damage but rather of cancellation of the planned sites. One chairman of a Chamber of Commerce in a potential nuclear power plant community in rural Japan expressed his concern that his town may not receive the slated plant and told his interviewer that, “Nothing other than a nuclear plant will bring money here. That’s for sure. What else can an isolated town like this do except host a nuclear plant?” Despite any anger or health concerns, the population of potential and actual host communities has not become an outspoken critic of Japan’s nuclear policies.

The Broader Japanese Public

While those residents most at risk from nuclear power have said little, broader public opinion polls have revealed a gradual and clear movement towards anti-nuclear sentiment without accompanying large scale anti-nuclear demonstrations. While many Japanese respondents may express strong concern about the environmental and health consequences of nuclear power and indicate a desire to shift Japan away from atomic energy, few have been willing to expend the time and energy required to participate in public demonstrations or rallies. Large scale demonstrations against the US-Japan security treaty known as Anpo in the 1960s and against the presence of US military bases in Okinawa involved more than 100,000 participants. In contrast, recent anti-nuclear demonstrations in Tokyo and elsewhere have topped out at fewer than 20,000 at best, which are miniscule in comparison to the 200,000 or so who marched in Germany to press Chancellor Merkel on the issue.

While the public at large has yet to take to the streets, historical data on the feelings towards nuclear power show that between 1968 (when the nuclear power program was in its infancy) and the late 1990s (when it was in full swing), Japanese respondents felt increasingly insecure about nuclear power. Table 1 below shows how the number of individuals feeling “secure” about nuclear power dropped from more than half in the late 1960s to fewer than 4 percent in the late 1990s. Also interesting to note is that the percentage of individuals who did not answer the question has dropped dramatically, from 40 percent to closer to 7. This indicates that individuals who in the past felt that they lacked the knowledge about the topic or had no reason to think about its salience have since changed their perspective.

Table 1: Feelings of Security in Nuclear Power among Japanese Respondents

Table 1

Note: Data from Management and Coordination Agency (Sōmuchō) Surveys

The Asahi Shimbun, a major national newspaper, has run a series of polls with sufficient samples of the population to make accurate inferences about their preferences as a whole. Between April and June support for nuclear power has dropped severely.

Table 2: Waning Support for Nuclear Power since the Crisis Began

Table 2

Note: Data from Asahi Shimbun polls

Along with these surveys, more recent polls conducted in early July show that some 7 out of 10 Japanese respondents favor ending Japan’s use of nuclear power and seeking alternative energy sources in combination with higher levels of energy efficiency. Exacerbating the problem was a recent scandal when it was discovered that the Kyushu Electric Power Company (KEPCO) sought to sway public opinion by asking its employees to use their personal email accounts to send supportive messages to a public forum on the issue of restarting the Genkai nuclear reactor. Kyushu clearly hoped to generate additional support for a controversial issue, but the attempt backfired, and the company has faced intense criticism both from local residents and the national government for the scandal. The public at large both distrusts the nuclear industry and supports the shutdown of the nation’s nuclear power plants.

Japanese Political Elites

While private, regional power utilities, such as the aforementioned TEPCO and KEPCO, are responsible for the generation, distribution, and maintenance of energy in Japan, various political figures hold informal or formal veto points in the nuclear power plant process. As a matter of courtesy, TEPCO and other utilities usually seek permission from governors and other local political leaders before restarting their plants after shutdowns. The authors of a recent Asahi Shimbun survey (16 June 2011) summarized their results by arguing that essentially 11 of out of 47 governors want to either decrease current use or abolish nuclear power totally.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) which has within it the bureau responsible for the promotion of nuclear power (Agency for Natural Resources and Energy) then consulted specifically with the governors from prefectures with nuclear power plants. These prefectures include Hokkaido, Aomori, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Niigata, Shizuoka, Ishikawa, Fukui, Shimane, Ehime, Saga, and Kagoshima; 13 out of Japan’s 47 prefectures have host communities for nuclear power plants. According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF, the industry’s trade association), all 13 governors refused to give their permission for the restart of nuclear reactors during the last week in June. That is, their position remains an obstacle to restarting any plants which have passed post-crisis inspections. Most recently, the governor of Fukushima publicly declared that he has no intention to give his permission to restart the reactors in his prefecture which have created such challenges to the citizenry.

Furthermore, top level government officials have introduced various obstacles to the restart of nuclear power plants which have either been shut down due to a request from the government – such as the Hamaoka nuclear power complex operated by Chubu Electric Power Company which has a high likelihood of experiencing a powerful earthquake – or due to damage, seismic activity, or schedule maintenance procedures. While many of these reactors were cleared by the companies and by international standards for restart, the central government ordered additional computational “stress tests” to be undertaken in early July. Without a clear timetable, these stress tests could in theory indefinitely hold up the restart of all 54 of the nuclear power plants across Japan.

Most recently, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whom many consider to be a lame-duck PM on his last few weeks of office, publicly stated at a recent press conference that Japan should “depart from its dependence on nuclear energy.” Yet the Cabinet and various other top level government officials immediately argued that these statements were merely his personal opinion and not official government policy. Kan later admitted that he had made these statements without consulting his Cabinet. Investors and nuclear power producers must navigate a clearly hostile environment if they wish to return to the pre-disaster status quo.

International Repercussions

The accident has had an impact well beyond Japan’s national borders. While earlier nuclear advocates envisioned the world entering a “nuclear renaissance” due to broader recognition of the perils of global warming (created at least in part from the use of coal, oil-fired, and LNG generating plants which generate carbon dioxide), the Fukushima accident has created strong emotions and cast doubt on reliability and safety claims made by the nuclear industry. Polls have shown that the accident resulted in measurable a decrease in support for nuclear power across nations including the US, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland. On average, polls have revealed a 8 to 12 percent drop in support for the use of nuclear power.

Empirical research by Matthew Fuhrman has shown that following past, large-scale nuclear accidents, such as Three Mile Island in 1979 in the United States and Chernobyl in 1986 in the former Soviet Union, the probability of new nuclear power plant construction decreased dramatically in democracies. More specifically, he argued that the Three Mile Island accident reduced the probability of new nuclear builds by 75 percent in the years which followed, while the Chernobyl accident reduced the probability by 90 percent (relative to the pre-1986 period). Given that the Fukushima accident sits someplace between these two earlier accidents, one could predict that democracies will be around 80 percent likely in the short term (3 to 5 years) to pursue nuclear power plant building plans.

Catastrophes raise the costs of nuclear energy in two ways: they increase financial costs (the cost to borrow money increases for nuclear developers as investors and markets worry about their ability to complete the facility and run it profitably in a more anti-nuclear environment) and raise audience costs (the political costs paid by politicians and decision makers who publicly support a controversial energy source). Correspondingly, regulators under pressure to do something may respond to nuclear accidents by raising the bar on safety standards, a procedure known as “regulatory ratcheting.” Ratcheting – the gradual shift upward in requirements for nuclear power plants – can substantially raise their capital costs and can make it impossible for developers to complete plants under construction which must be revised continually as regulations shift towards more stringent requirements. In this way financial and audience costs are quite intertwined with each other.

As a result of the shift in public opinion and a concern about the ability to effectively control nuclear reactors under extreme conditions, and in line with predictions, a number of nations in Europe and Southeast Asia have now either suspended plans to construct new reactors or initiated the removal of existing plants. Germany, for example, which has relied on commercial nuclear power since the 1969 as part of its energy mix, has shifted toward a strongly anti-nuclear stance. More than 250,000 Germans marched in anti-nuclear rallies after the Fukushima accident in a strong showing of public opposition to atomic energy. While nuclear reactors generated more than 20 percent of the nation’s electric energy, center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, responding both to long standing pressure from environmentalists in its Green Party and to angry protests from anti-nuclear groups, has put in place plans to shut down all of the nation’s reactors by 2022.

Italy’s feelings toward nuclear power have been volatile, with an earlier referendum in 1987 after the Chernobyl accident closing the reactors and a reversal by the government of that decision in 2008. In the late 2000s, lawmakers in Italy planned on creating a new nuclear power plant system, but this goal was never realized. On June 11th and 12th 2011 (after the Fukushima accident) Italy held another national referendum on the issue of nuclear power. Roughly 60 percent of the eligible population showed up to cast their ballots, and 94 percent of the voters sought to end the nation’s nuclear power program. This second referendum seems to have sealed the fate of atomic energy in Italy.

Switzerland relied on nuclear power to produce 40 percent of its nuclear power, but following the Fukushima accident the government has decided to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2034 and has abandoned plans to construct new reactors. In some of the largest rallies on the topic, more than 20,000 demonstrators gathered in late May to show their disapproval of the use of nuclear power. Finally, Thailand, which earlier had sought to construct 5 nuclear power plants by 2025, froze its plans for at least three years due to concern about the safety of nuclear plants in the country.

These political moves in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Thailand are in line with the observations after past nuclear disasters and the predictions made by quantitative research on the impact of such catastrophes. By raising the costs for pro-nuclear politicians in democratic nations and by making it more difficult for firms to raise capital in open markets for potentially risky plants, the accident has severely altered the decision making environment on the issue.


The economic and social repercussions for the disaster in Japan have been far-reaching. Other advanced industrial democracies, such as Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have used the crisis as a focal point for anti-nuclear lobbying and dramatically altered the trajectories of their national energy program. Within Japan itself, authorities have suspended the export of a wide variety of agricultural products ranging from tea to vegetables along with the sale of farm animals such as cattle raised in the area, as all of these products were discovered to have levels of radiation far above the acceptable levels. Due to the large number of offline nuclear reactors throughout Japan , electricity shortages and tremendous uncertainty about the future stability of Japan’s power have caused many businesses to warn of a potential out-migration or hollowing out in the next three years.

There are other economic costs to Japan as well, beyond potential rolling blackouts and a loss of efficiency due to the shut down of air conditioners and production lines to save on energy. The Japanese government has suspended ongoing negotiations with various other nations – including Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey – on pending reactor and nuclear power equipment sales, arguing that moving forward with talks at this time would “risk contradicting the Prime Minister’s policy.” So while many top level officials continue to insist that the PM’s drive to end Japan’s nuclear energy policy is only his personal opinion, other ministerial level decision makers have shut down various ongoing negotiations to export Japan’s nuclear technology abroad.

For nations such as Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, Fukushima has become a major turning point in energy policy. Just as the Three Mile Island accident in the United States (and Chernobyl in Italy) stopped a pattern of broader public support for nuclear energy and created an environment in which nuclear growth was all but impossible, the ongoing Fukushima crisis has altered the ways that citizens and policy makers in nations around the world evaluate the costs and benefits of the technology. The world now stands now at the crossroads of post-industrial development: how to balance economic growth and the accompanying needs for carbon-dioxide free power when the potential negative externalities of nuclear power have become all too clear.

Daniel Aldrich
Professor and Director of the Security and Resilience Program, Northeastern University