Posted April 15th 2011 at 8:31 am by
in Great East Japan Earthquake, Perspectives on Current Events, Post-disaster Planning

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning

In this post Masahiro Matsuura, a Professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Public Policy, lays out the challenges and opportunities for the future of Japanese energy policy.  Matsuura earned a Ph.D in Urban and Regional Planning at MIT.

Before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Town of Kaminoseki in western Japan was host to an intense fight between local fishermen and a utility company over the site of a yet-to-be-built nuclear power plant.

In early March, the developer hired professional guardsmen to remove the protesters sitting at the site so he could lay the groundwork for the plant. After the earthquake, the local prefecture governor asked the utility to stop building, and eventually the developer decided to halt construction. The trajectory of this controversy exemplifies the difficulty of expanding nuclear in Japan for the foreseeable future.

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning

Google Maps image of Fukushima retrieved on April 14th, 2011.

This is a crucial moment for Japan, and for many countries around the world. We have to rethink nuclear power. In Japan, nuclear has long been responsible for supplying the base load of electricity.

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning
Trends in quantity of electric power generated (for general electricity businesses). Source: Energy in Japan 2010 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.


Japan accelerated its nuclear power program right after the oil crisis in the 1970s, and nuclear contributed more than 30% of the total power supply by the mid-1990s. The nation experienced a subsequent dip in nuclear usage due to a series of minor mishaps at several nuclear plants; those plants were later shut down for investigation and inspection. This dip, however, was just a blip in the long-term plan. The Japanese government has clearly made a bet on nuclear power.

There are approximately 50 commercial nuclear reactors in Japan. While it is unlikely that the Japanese government halt their operations, we cannot avoid discussions about how much we will depend on nuclear in the future. Are we still going to increase its share, are we going to stop further development, or are we going to reduce its share?

The current National Energy Plan, which was issued by the cabinet in 2010, states that nine new plants will be built, and their operation rates should be increased to 85% by 2020. It also argues for 14 additional plants with operation rates at 90% by 2030. If this plan were to be realized, nuclear would be providing approximately half of the nation’s electricity supply by 2030.

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning
Expected profile of electricity generation. Source: Energy demand and supply in 2030 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (English translation by Masahiro Matsuura).


Of course, this assumption must now be revisited, considering that the reactors in Fukushima will surely be scrapped. Given all that has happened in the last month, nine new power plants in eight years is unlikely. We are now at a critical juncture in Japan’s electricity power profile: Are we going to build more wind? Are we going install photovoltaics on the roof? Are we going to reduce our consumption?

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) anticipated that electricity demand would exceed supply after the earthquake. In fact, demand shrunk by so much that Tokyo was able to cancel many of the temporary blackouts it planned as a strategy for coping with reduced energy supply in the weeks after the earthquake. Instead, commuter train operators cut the number of trains running to save energy; some department stores shortened their hours in order to save electricity during the night; and households were asked to switch off lights and other appliances. A grass-roots movement spread through Twitter and Facebook. It asked everyone to save energy in order to bring demand down below TEPCO’s supply capacity. The result was astounding. An approximate 20 percent reduction was achieved compared to the same season last year.

Japanese utility companies have long fought against market liberalization, but the earthquake and subsequent tsunami may have created conditions that could facilitate just that. In Japan, regional utility monopolies produce, transmit, and distribute nearly all of the country’s electricity. We have 10 region-based monopolies in Japan.

While independent power producers, often abbreviated as IPPs, are allowed to sell electricity to utility companies, the market is very small. Major consumers, such as factories and shopping malls with 50kW or higher contracts, are now allowed to purchase electricity from registered power producers and suppliers (PPS). This arrangement, however, has not been utilized as much as expected because of the recent hike in the price of oil and gas, which IPPs and PPSs use for their thermal plants.

Now that the TEPCO has lost a significant amount of electricity generating capacity at Fukushima I Plant (total 7.5 GW) and Fukushima II Plant (total 4.4 GW), it has to secure electricity from other sources. It will be forced to purchase more electricity from IPPs.

Photovoltaics present another challenge to the regional energy monopolies. The new Democratic Party administration institutionalized a feed-in tariff (FIT) for household-based photovoltaic panels in 2009. The government is expected to extend the FIT to all kinds of renewables in a couple of years. Photovoltaics have proven extremely popular among new homebuyers – the FIT payment all but guarantees a return on investment for the homebuyer.

Wind power presents another alternative to conventional power sources. The earthquake affected almost no wind turbines, even in the northeastern region. Turbines resumed their operation less than a week after the earthquake. A semi-offshore wind farm in Kamisu, Ibaraki, with 7 turbines located about 50 yards off the coastline, was not affected by the tsunami at all. While the advanced and complex nuclear facilities suffered from the tsunami, the simple wind turbines were barely affected.

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and PlanningThe Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa VII Plant, another nuclear plant in Japan, currently provides electricity to Tokyo and its vicinities. Photo by Masahiro Matsuura.

TEPCO’s traditional centralized vertical integration model revealed its drawbacks in the aftermath of the massive earthquake. Now TEPCO has to seek supplies from IPPs. In the past, TEPCO tried to bar IPPs from the market. It will also have to rely on renewables, connected to the grid under the FIT regulations. The struggle over market liberalization, which has been ongoing for some time, might end in an unexpected result because of the unanticipated height of the tsunami.

Regardless of the future of nuclear, the remnants of nuclear remain. All nations that rely on nuclear energy need a plan for the handling of spent fuels. The Japanese government has long pursued “recycling” nuclear fuels. Limited amount of uranium ore, which is the main source of nuclear fuel, is found in particular parts of the world, and Japan has been concerned about its energy security because of an anticipated global uranium shortage in the near future when China and other developing nations start to rely on commercial nuclear power. This has led to the construction of Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which mixes traditional uranium with plutonium produced from the spent fuels. This mixed fuel, called MOX fuel, is in fact used in the number three reactor at the Fukushima I Plant. The reactor was damaged by the tsunami failure, and small amount of radioactive plutonium has been subsequently detected in several locations inside the plant area.

Because plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons, its production and storage must be taken under the highest security possible. Considering the nature of failures at the plant, including mishandling of the initial failures, there will be questions in the international community as to whether the Japanese government is capable of protecting plutonium against possible terrorist attacks.

The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning
Entrance door to the containment vessel at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Plant. Photo by Masahiro Matsuura.


This will also affect the ongoing discussion on where high-level nuclear waste (HLW) should be stored. While the United States has long been bogged down in the debate over the Yucca Mountain site, Japan has never been able to identify a single site. The current siting strategy of the Japanese government is structured around a kind of reverse auction: municipalities can apply for geological and other studies to identify possible sites. In return, the municipality receives an enormous financial subsidy (at this moment, approximately 2.8 million USD per year during the initial site study period). Even with this enormous amount of money, no municipality has ever succeeded in submitting a proposal. Whenever there is a discussion in a small municipality regarding the possibility of submitting a proposal for accepting the site research, a protest movement emerges in the municipality and the proposal is killed through elections and referendum.

The citizen backlash has prompted the government to pursue a nuclear cycle that reduces the quantity of HLW. Now, after the serious incident at Fukushima, the discussion about HLW disposal will be very complex. Even if we stop all the nuclear power plants in Japan immediately, we will have to have a HLW disposal anyway. Meanwhile, public trust in the nuclear industry is much lower than ever before. While the popular media will probably focus on the future of nuclear power generation, HLW disposal will continue to be the “hidden factor” in the field.

The past month has raised tremendous questions about the future of energy policy. What kind of world are we going to live and how much energy do we need?

In 2007, the National Institute for Environmental Studies published two possible narrative scenarios for a low-carbon society . In the first scenario, people live in futuristic cities and consume a relatively large amount of electricity generated by nuclear power plants. In the second scenario, people are more attracted to the pastoral life and consume less electricity generated by renewable sources. While the first scenario seemed more likely before the earthquake in March, the second scenario seems much more plausible after the nuclear incident.

Scott Valentine, an expert in renewable energy in Asia, suggests that the Japan can in fact rely on renewable energy for as much as 20 percent of its total demand . Even though discarding the whole nuclear options might be unrealistic considering the need for a base load supply and green house gas emission reduction, we might be able to rely mainly on renewables while trying to reduce the demand. The conventional industry would likely protest such a scenario; this kind of drastic change would harm their economic interests. But the main question is about the way in which we, as a people, live and work.

Let’s think about this question about how Japanese live: It is not an energy policy question. It is a city and regional planning question! Each Japanese citizen has to think about what kind of city and region s/he wants to live in. Does he want to live in a high rise and buy high-end merchandise and engineered produce in an energy-consuming city? Does he want to drive a zero-emission electric vehicle whose power comes from a nuclear power plant? Alternatively, does he want to live in a hinterland with minimal lighting and heating, and eat only local produce? Can he imagine a life without driving an automobile at all? Is he ready to telecommute?

These are the questions that Japanese citizens need to deliberate now. We need to teach each other about the pros and cons of totally different life styles. We need to analyze a wide variety of options from different perspectives, including climate change, nature conservation, economic growth, and public safety. In Japan, I think, we need to start such a dialogue in order to reach broad agreement as to what kind of life are we going to enjoy, and to determine how much energy we need and the risks associated with it.

For more on Japan, see Shoko Takemoto’s post on experiencing resiliance in post-earthquake disaster in Japan and Wataru Nomura’s post on beginning the long way to restoration.

2 responses to “The Future of Japanese Energy Policy and Planning”

  1. Christina says:

    Professor Matsura,

    Thank you for this deeply engaging post. How incredible that the Japanese people were quickly able to reduce energy consumption by 20% through some simple, thoughtful adjustments! Imagine what the world could accomplish if we were all just a little bit more thoughtful in our daily lives. Even a walk through MIT’s corridors at night show how wasteful the most brilliant scholars can be (see photos in this 2006 report:

    Your insights into the lack of a safe, comprehensive method of nuclear waste/fuel management and the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation is a conversation that needs to move back to the forefront of the discussion on nuclear energy as a response to carbon mitigation. I once asked the director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems questions related to this and he posted his responses online: What is shocking to me in regards to nuclear being the solution to climate change is that we are trading one problem for another with little thought as to how we will manage the inevitable issues associated with the new “solution”. This scenario plays out time and time again around environmental problems. For example the gasoline additive MTBE was introduced to reduce tail-pipe emissions in automobiles but it could quickly pollute large quantities of ground water, so the air was cleaner but towns were losing their whole water supplies due to leaking gasoline tanks.

    As you point out, nuclear power comes with serious caveats that should not be ignored simply because it addresses carbon emissions. I believe that engineers, city planners, and city officials need to be willing to develop solutions with a systems approach in mind and agree with you that adjustments to our lifestyles should be included in the effort to develop solutions meet energy demands and reduce consumption.

    Finally, I would like to draw your attention to three major interdisciplinary reports from MIT on nuclear energy listed here:, which may be of interest to you.

    Thank you again for this interesting essay,

  2. dorothy bloom says:

    I am so grateful to have been able to se this essay. It is certainly apropos now that America take note of the pros and cons of nuclear energy and pay more attention to nonrenewables like photovoltaic panels and wind. I am amused, I guess, by people in my neighborhood who fight wind because windmills will destroy property values and kill bird, when hydrofracking and nuclear power seem to threaten very serious consequences to our societies.