A point of view on energy business
Out of the 243 nations of the world, Japan is undoubtedly the most extraordinary one. No other country can brag of having become an industrialized world power in only 50 years right after two centuries of feudal regime, and achieving the second largest GDP in the planet in only 40 years more. Being the 10th most populated country and with one of the highest population densities, its crime rate is at the bottom of all rankings. Japan is the only State that renounced through the National Constitution to its right to declare war and substituted its Army by a Self-Defense Force. And to top it off, Japanese culture and cuisine are among the most valuable legacies a nation will ever leave to humanity.
However, Japan fails to bequeath its well-deserved national proud to the youth. The tough education system that prepared the best generation of engineers and managers allowing for the rapid economic growth after the Second World War is not able anymore to provide new generations with the levels of self-reflection, creative thinking and social responsibility needed to survive the challenges of the new century. And the most important of these challenges for Japan is the energy crisis that began after the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11th 2011.
Until that date a 30% of Japan’s energy consumption was covered with the production its 54 nuclear reactors. About one year later only two of them were still working due to safety reasons. The missing nuclear production was substituted by imported coal and gas, which caused the worst trade deficit for the country ever since 1980 and an overwhelming raise of green house gases emissions, despite the big efforts of the population to reduce their electricity consumption. Therefore the executive administration of former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda launched in September 2012 the Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment that sketched the milestones for what they dared to call ‘the Green Energy Revolution’. But repeated attempts to implement feed in tariffs for renewables were already unsuccessful in the past and this last one was not an exception. Shinzo Abe, who became Prime Minister with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in December 2012, didn’t take long in reconsidering the strategy. His Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced that Tokyo would take over responsibility against local prefectures when deciding to reconnect secure nuclear reactors, which is another way of saying that any local resistance to recover nuclear power would be unilaterally overcome by the central government.
In his report “Beyond Nuclear” Greenpeace points out three major challenges for the electricity sector in Japan: Market deregulation, devaluation of nuclear assets and breakthroughs in renewable deployment. The economic and technical arguments of the report are quite logical and straight forward, however none of the actions proposed was undertaken by the Japanese administration so far. And the reason for it is that any change over the current market situation has been slowed down thanks to the big lobbying power of Japanese utilities, afraid of losing their oligopolistic position. At the end of the report there is an interesting section with lessons learned from the European utilities’ approach to renewables. This section demonstrates how big electricity companies benefited from an early adoption of growing renewable capacity after nuclear phase-out policies. But, is it not contradictory to see Japan learning from the nuclear phase-out program of Germany, which was actually retook by Angela Merkel after the accident of Fukushima? Shouldn’t it be just the other way around?
The explanation of that mirror effect is not simple. Technical or economic discussion is useless to understand the nuclear history of Japan; sociological reasoning must be brandish instead. To make the long story short, there are two characteristics that define the Japanese idiosyncrasy: Privacy, or the idea that you should never air your dirty laundry in public, and eclecticism, or the bad habit of rapidly assimilating diverse external trends instead of defining new ones. The combination of both has been critical for the little progress of the energy transition in Japan.
Do not air the dirty laundry in public
Some years ago I read an article about poverty in Japan. Almost one in six Japanese lived in poverty in 2007 but government was afraid to face reality and did not set the poverty line at an appropriated value. Thereby authorities were trying to hide this statistic to the international community. But the most shocking was that families were doing the same at their neighborhoods, for example hiding the fact that they needed two jobs in order to afford the school of their children. This tendency to live misfortune in privacy is the same behind Shinzo Abe’s decision to recover nuclear in order to avoid the trade deficit. Even though security is reestablished, utilities cannot finance their nuclear assets with high credit rating bonds anymore and despite the help of national banks they are still tied to volatile interest rates. Therefore, if nukes are to be run again, Japanese will have to face a continuous increase of electricity prices in the unfavorable context of currency devaluation and high deficit. Government knows that this won’t be much better for the Japanese economy than buying some expensive gas to a third party. However it will chose to bear the risk of a new nuclear catastrophe rather than pushing for a change in their energy strategy just to avoid the ‘shame‘ of depending momentarily on external resources.
Faced with this situation, the Japanese population should flood the streets claiming for responsible action to their representatives. But as the professor of the Tsukuba University James B. Cole stated: << Unfortunately Japanese citizens did not protest enough >> even when 300.000 people continue to be displaced from their homes in the surroundings of Fukushima.
Japan became a nation of followers
In 1954, only 9 years after both nuclear bombs were thrown in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan started its nuclear energy program. Curiously, in the same year the film company Toho Ltd created its character Godzilla, the monster that destroys Tokyo but then protects humanity at a later stage; a simplistic metaphor for nuclear energy that intends to decouple its war and peaceful applications. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, American psychiatrist and proponent of the theory of thought reform – also called theory of brainwashing –, explained that the cover-up and cozy bureaucratic collusion between industry and government was behind this unrealistic and childish distinction between good and bad nuclear energy. But how was it so easy to manipulate public opinion after 200.000 innocent people were killed in the cruel nuclear attacks? The book “How the Japanese Became Foreign to Themselves” speculates on why Japanese had lost their ability to innovate and to question their leaders, who are victims of a recalcitrant inertia and lack of vision. In other words, it is not that the Japanese was a pro-nuclear society; it is only that they didn’t massively faced up to their government. So if you ask a senior Japanese citizen: << Who defended the use of nuclear energy at that time? >> most likely you will hear the expiatory words that the Creedence made popular in the late 60’s: << It ain’t me >>. But now it is time for something more than just redemption, it is time to take action.
The land of the rising sun
Japanese young poeple has poorly reacted to Abe’s intentions to reopen nukes. Nonetheless, there is even so room for optimism. The anti-nuclear movement in Japan has heavily grown in the last years. Former president Naoto Kan, Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe or Haruki Murakami are among the Japanese important persons who already declared themselves against nuclear power. And yesterday anti-nuclear demonstrations took place again in the eve of the second Fukushima anniversary. The spirit of Jinzaburo Takagi, the Japanese scientist and anti-nuclear activist who won the Right Livelihood Award in 1997, is still alive.
And however it is not enough yet. The Japanese youth must stand up and fight for their right to live in a country free from the nuclear threat; conscious that their responsibility goes far beyond their own boundaries, since their achievements will be seen as an exemplary lesson for other countries in the future. They should find inspiration in examples of extraordinary courage and commitment like the ones in Paul Johannessen’s documentary “Women of Fukushima“. Japanese people – and not any government – are the ones who can drive the ‘Green Energy Revolution’ and recover the proud on the country which was once the land of the rising sun.