Japan Earthquake Casts Shadow on Resurgent Nuclear Efforts

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On January 1st, a massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck a remote Japanese peninsula, causing a wave of devastation along the northwestern coast. In the wake of this disaster, a grim outlook overtook Japan’s recent resurging nuclear activity. While the aftermath and reparations take place, the Japanese people seem less enthusiastic about reopening dormant atomic power plants. 

As the world makes efforts to lend aid after such a tragic event, we can’t help but wonder what’s next for the Japanese nuclear power program. 

The Devastating Quake

The New Year’s Day earthquake rippled through the western coast, resulting in a tragic 161 death toll and leaving over 2,000 people stranded from rubble and severely damaged roads. The Japanese military has offered aid, distributing emergency supplies to the victims. The Minister of Defense for Japan gave a statement that said over 6,000 troops had been deployed to help with disaster relief efforts. 

As rescue efforts are still underway, aftershocks continue to ripple from the epicenter of the disaster. Officials are encouraging residents in the most affected areas to remain in place for safety. As of the writing of this post, more than 1,200 tremors had been recorded since New Year’s Day. 

Japanese Nuclear Power Plants Mostly Undamaged

Fortunately, New Year’s Day earthquakes did not cause significant damage to nuclear facilities throughout Japan. Only two atomic facilities reported minor damages, including a small amount of leaked water from nuclear fuel pools. Still, with the immediate tsunami warnings that followed the earthquakes, much of the public was reminded of the tragic events that took place in 2011, when a massive tsunami wrecked Japan, causing the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. 

The Shika nuclear reactor is the closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, at nearly 65 km distance. However, the Shika facility has remained dormant since the Fukushima incident. Since the initial quake, regular inspections have been held at the Shika facility and other nuclear reactors to ensure no further damage caused by the events of January 1st or any of its aftershocks. 

Despite nominal damage to nuclear facilities, the Japanese people are skeptical toward atomic power plants. 

Bad Timing for Nuclear

The January 1st quake struck mere days after Japanese regulators lifted the ban on operation for Tokyo’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which has been offline since 2012. The plant, which lies roughly 120 kilometers away from the earthquake’s epicenter, has had a rough history, being banned from operation in 2021 due to safety concerns and mishandling of nuclear materials. 

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) hopes to reopen the power as soon as possible after the earthquake but will likely face more resilient opposition. Despite the increasing energy demands, the Japanese government is wary of jumping back into a full-scale nuclear power program. 

Following the January 1st earthquake, Tepco reported that water had spilled from a nuclear fuel pool at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. Approximately 15 liters of radioactive water spilled from two separate pools due to the earth’s tremors. Though officials said the radiation levels were in the normal range, Japanese people can’t help but think of Japan’s nuclear disasters in the past, such as the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. 

Japanese People Less Positive About Nuclear Energy

Unfortunately, Japan has had its fair share of nuclear disasters. In March 2011, the island nation experienced a catastrophic earthquake and resulting tsunamis, which caused the Fukushima meltdown—Japan’s largest nuclear disaster. Thousands of citizens fled from their homes and businesses to avoid radiation poisoning from the fallout.

Though this horrific event held no casualties from radiation sickness, the tragedy displaced over 100,000 Japanese citizens. The catastrophe devastated the public’s opinion on nuclear power, with all four nuclear reactors at Fukushima damaged in the meltdown. Understandably, Japanese officials had renewed concern for the safety and sustainability of Japan’s nuclear power interests. 

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power provided Japan with roughly 30% of its power supply. Approximately 72 nuclear reactors were in full operation until the 2011 tsunami. However, only ten months after Fukushima, nuclear power dwindled to just over 8% of the nation’s electricity supply. Due to public opinion, Japan had plans to shut down its nuclear efforts. 

A decade later, however, rising energy costs and increasing power demands spurred a rekindled movement to re-explore nuclear power in Japan. Nuclear power remains one of the cleanest forms of energy production while being relatively affordable to produce after the initial investment. 

Though the hope was to reinstate the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant by the end of 2026, the January 1st earthquake has cast public doubt and a sense of fear. This public position on a nuclear power resurgence may prevent a nuclear return to Japanese interests. 

Economic Impact 

Japanese power companies already felt the economic effects of the earthquake, as Tepco’s share fell 8% after opening on the 4th. Hokuriku Electric Power Company, which holds the dormant Shika nuclear power plant about 65 kilometers from the quake’s epicenter, slid as much as 8%. The declining stocks, less public faith in nuclear power, and panicked share-selling leave atomic energy in a lousy light among Japanese investors. 

Naturally, public safety concerns are at the forefront of the arguments against reopening nuclear power plant operations. However, one must look at the potential economic implications of failing to research atomic power in Japan. 

In addition to being one of the greenest forms of energy production, atomic energy is relatively affordable to produce, given the infrastructure in place and sustainability costs. If Japan continues to expand its nuclear power program, it could significantly reduce energy affordability for its citizens and businesses. 

Naturally, Japan’s citizens will face extreme economic uncertainty in the wake of the January 1st earthquake and subsequent ramifications. Experts estimate that years before, the area most affected by the disaster will be back on its feet in full economic operation. 

Japan’s Recent Return to Nuclear

The recent reversal in official standing on nuclear power was mainly due to global economic stressors. Increasing energy demands, global fuel shortages, and inflation pushed the Japanese government to look into ways to lower energy prices for its citizens. Additionally, because nuclear power is a lower-emission energy source, it could help Asian islands adhere to sustainability goals moving forward. 

Japan announced that Kashiwazaki-Kariwa could resume operation just days before the New Year’s Day disaster. Furthermore, the Japanese government announced plans to expand the nuclear power program with new reactors and plants.

Under the new plan, Japan would utilize existing nuclear reactors to their fullest capacity while investing in new plants to provide clean energy at lower costs. The plan also included a strict lifespan of 60 for any nuclear reactor to mitigate the risks of aging atomic facilities. 

This resurgence comes after over a decade of anti-nuclear sentiments that followed the Fukushima disaster. Restart approval for several idle nuclear power plants had been issued within the previous year, indicating a return of atomic power. Despite the negative stigma often associated with nuclear power, it is one of the lowest emission-releasing power sources. 

The recent return to nuclear energy led to 27 plants receiving approval to restart operations, with ten previously idle plants returning to operation. Atomic energy is set to play an essential role in lowering global emissions and reducing the impact of climate change. 

Will the Earthquake Put an End to Nuclear Power in Japan? 

Despite some negative press and the January 1st earthquake, nuclear power in Japan doesn’t seem to be in major jeopardy. Tatsunori Kawai, chief strategist at Au Kabu.com Securities, said, “Today’s heavy selling was mostly due to overall market sentiment and initial panic selling. Traders later realized that this heavy selling cannot be justified.”

In the face of public opposition, the Japanese government will need to decide if their rekindled nuclear efforts will be allowed to continue or if the earthquake on New Year’s Day will squelch nuclear energy, like the Fukushima disaster. 

According to Tepco officials, they still hope to resume operation by the end of 2026 as scheduled. The decision to stay the course and bring nuclear energy back to Japanese power plants could eventually be a catalyst for others to sway public opinion back in favor of atomic-generated electricity. 

As Japan recovers, the nuclear debate seems to still lean toward a continued atomic resurrection. 

Jess

About the Author:
Jess began his career in client relations for a large manufacturer in Huntsville, Alabama. With several years of leadership under his belt, Jess made the leap to brand communications with Bizwrite, LLC. As a senior copywriter, Jess crafts compelling marketing and PR content with a particular emphasis on global energy markets and professional services. 

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