Japan’s dilemma is its dependence on energy imports, but Japan needs capable naval forces and the United States to keep the sea lanes open.
Japan is on a path that no other country has taken before. The country has to solve the following dilemma: It must procure energy cheaply, but at the same time also produce this energy in an environmentally friendly way. For energy customers it is equally important to get their energy at low cost. All in all it is not possible for Japan to fulfill these criteria. But the Japanese population demands it. This leads to a conflict, because nuclear energy has been a reliable source of electricity since the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima and has led to a social tensions concerning the use of nuclear energy in Japan. So there are not many solutions left to supply a highly industrialized country like Japan with energy.
In addition, Japan has no energy resources of its own, which severely limits the opportunities for energy generation. This forces Japan to cover its energy shortage by importing oil and gas. Since Japan is completely dependent on maritime trade, it is forcing Japan to continue to develop its naval forces and to keep the sea routes open for the transport of oil and gas. It is particularly important for Japan to join forces with the largest naval power in the Pacific, the United States. Japan’s history shows that in the 20th century Japan was a sea power in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions. However, Japan alone did not have the capacity and energy reserves to dominate the entire Pacific region on its own, despite attempts to dominate the Pacific. Japan weighs the advantages it curently derives from global commodities trade against the disadvantages of military dependence on the US.
Long-term outlook of the Japanese alliance with the United States and the consequences for Japan’s energy industry and for Japan’s energy imports
If the United States were no longer able to guarantee energy imports and free access to international maritime routes, including the Strait of Malacca, the American presence in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea, the disadvantages of the military alliance with the United States would outweigh the advantages. Japan could potentially seek new allies. The United States is currently trying to avoid this problem by targeting a quadripartite alliance with India, Australia and Japan to limit China’s expansion in the South China Sea. But not only China’s east coast is highly industrialized, South Korea and Japan are as well. South Korea has almost the same difficulties as Japan when it comes to energy procurement from abroad and raw material poverty at home. This situation will worsen as China becomes an increasingly important part of the commodities value chain in East Asia. Most energy supplied to East Asia is funnelled through the Malacca Strait and the lion’s share goes to China. This gives China the opportunity to dominate global energy trading as the largest buyer country. Not only does China become the preferred trading partner of many Middle Eastern countries, Iran in particular, China also gains the opportunity to negotiate better trade deals.
It is difficult for Japan to get away from nuclear power, especially because there are no domestic energy reserves that can be used to keep a highly industrialized society going.
However, Japan is in a special situation, due to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, which was caused by the tectonic shifts deep inside the earth. The seismic activity near the coast of Japan led to a violent earthquake in the Pacific, and the tidal wave destroyed the oldest nuclear reactor of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) in Fukushima, Daiishi 1. The cost of solving this problem are truly astronomical, as in the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Radioactively contaminated water spilled from Daiishi 1 has had to be sucked off so that radioactively contaminated groundwater does not flow into the Pacific. The radioactive water is collected and stored in large barrels near the nuclear reactor to minimize the damage. Chugoku Electric Power Co. also planned to put the new Shimane nuclear reactor into operation. The reactor is located on the western coast of Japan.
However, this did not happen. Despite safety updates that make it practically impossible for Fukushima to repeat itself, it was not possible to convince the local population and government to operate the nuclear reactor. Among other things, watertight security doors were put in place, as well as building huge walls to avoid that tidal waves can hit the plant. In all seriousness, Japan only has one energy source that could contribute to Japan’s energy needs, and that is geothermal energy. Due to the tectonic activity, the heat from the ground can be used thermally to generate electricity. However, this will certainly be a long-term solution. Geothermal energy cannot be commercialised as well as nuclear power. Japan’s use of solar and wind energy is very limited. Japan is too far north for solar energy, and there is a lack of land to commercialize wind energy.
To end with a quote by Japan for Sustainability: “Japan has abundant reserves of geothermal energy, a stable source of electricity with a high utilization factor on par with thermal power. Below we share a report about the present status of geothermal use in Japan, including installation potentials and future prospects for expansion.” I have also written about geothermal energy in a recent article which shows that Japan can significantly increase its share of renewable energy.
Japan for Sustainability, Geothermal Power: Japan Has World’s Third Largest Geothermal Reserves, 60 Percent of Which Can Be Developed, 2014, available at: https://www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id035043.html
Shunsuke Kondo, Chairman Japan Atomic Energy Commission, PowerPoint: Japan Nuclear Energy Policy – Update, available at: http://www.aec.go.jp/jicst/NC/sitemap/pdf/iaea57_1.pdf
World Nuclear Association, 2018: Fukushima Daiichi Accident, available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-accident.aspx