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Japan's Approach to the Energy Crisis in the Ongoing Russia-Ukraine War - Yaren Öztürk


Japan is a country that aims to increase the use of renewable energy to meet one-third of the country's total energy production by 2030, so it is following a decarbonization strategy that will exclude environmentally harmful and inefficient power plants. While entering the fifth week of the Russia-Ukraine war, rising energy prices worldwide seem to lead to changes in Japan's long-running policies of accelerating the transition to clean energy and staying away from nuclear energy as much as possible. Nuclear energy's role in the climate crisis and problems in the energy field in Japan cause discussions throughout the country. Some states, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the United Nations define nuclear energy as a low-carbon technology that provides electricity and heat production without fossil fuels. On the other hand, environmental organizations warn people that nuclear energy would have devastating consequences like the dangers of toxic waste and nuclear meltdown.


Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine launched, electricity prices in many countries, including Japan, had reached the highest levels in the past years. It is estimated that electricity bills in March will be the highest in the last five years in Japan. On March 16, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7,4 in the northeastern Tohoku region stretched the power grid, causing over a dozen power plants in Japan to topple. With the extremely cold weather last week, power cuts occurred in 15 provinces, including Tokyo. Solar power generation in the country declined, and a short-term crisis occurred as there were not enough natural gas and coal power plants to offset this decline. The crisis led to the warning of the first electricity supply for Tokyo. To resolve the crisis and stop power outages, the Japanese government has requested to reduce their electricity consumption and set their thermostats to 20 degrees Celsius drastically from its citizens and businesses. The crisis brought the problems in Japan's energy infrastructure to the surface and inflamed nationwide debates.


When going back to the beginning of the discussions in the country, it is necessary to understand the earthquake with a magnitude of 9 that occurred in the country in 2011 and the disasters in Fukushima afterward. After the earthquake, a giant tsunami wave hit the Dai-Ichi nuclear facility in Fukushima, and the second-largest nuclear power plant accident after Chernobyl has experienced. The tsunami wave damaged the reactor's cooling systems, shutting down power to the systems and reasoning three reactor cores to melt. Immediately after the earthquake and nuclear accident, the Japanese government decided to shut down the entire fleet of nuclear reactors, which provide about 30% of the country's electricity needs and contain 54 reactors. As a result of the stance of the opposition forces in the country after the 2011 earthquake and a slow regulatory process, it was decided to reopen only ten nuclear power plants. After the closed nuclear power plants, they wanted to meet the electricity obtained from nuclear by focusing on solar power plants, natural gas, and coal power plants. Today, less than 10% of the electricity used by Japan comes from nuclear energy. Although these events that happened 11 years ago led to angry opposition to nuclear energy, the 7,4 magnitude earthquake in the same region recently may be planting the first seeds of the government's moderate approach.

Some arguments assert that could have avoided the power outages on the night of March 16 if more nuclear power plants were operating in the country. Another claim is the increasing worldwide fossil fuel prices; subsequently, the Russia-Ukraine war and the expanding dependence on renewable energy sources, which are still not entirely reliable, might cause more fluctuations and instability in Japan's electricity grid. The Japanese government responds by saying there are no problems at the moment, but there is information reflected in the Japanese press that some of the coal power plants in the country are damaged, and they are likely to be out of service. On the other hand, Japan imports about 5% of its oil and about 8% of its LNG from Russia. Russia is the fifth-largest supplier of LNG and oil to Japan. Considering that LNG is a fuel facing a global supply shortage, Japan can't increase its LNG purchase for now. Renewable energy is still not a short-term solution to reducing dependence on fossil fuels. While it is a controversial option, making nuclear reactors safe to use again remains a good option. For Japan to reach its 2030 energy targets, there should be open 33 nuclear reactors. Japan, which currently has only ten working nuclear reactors, has to get local governments' and national regulators' approval to speed up this process.

Nikkei, one of the country's leading newspapers, has been conducting surveys on reopening nuclear reactors for years. The results of the latest published survey have shown that people think of reopening the nuclear reactors that were closed after the Fukushima disaster for the first time with a 53% majority. This result marks the first time since the catastrophes of 2011 that the majority support nuclear power. In a similar survey conducted in September 2021, while the proportion of people who support reopening decommissioned nuclear reactors was 44%, it has increased to 53% now. It can say that the Russia-Ukraine war, which has been going on for more than a month, has an apparent effect on this survey result. Nobuo Tanaka, the former executive director of the International Energy Agency, gave an interview in the past weeks and approached from a different perspective. He mentioned that Japan, the world's second-largest LNG importer, could resell LNG to Europe if the country reopens its nuclear power plants.


While the world's countries are in a global energy crisis, they are trying to cope with the effects of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. As countries and international organizations make various decisions to reduce dependence on Russian energy, the number of sanctions imposed on Russia increases daily. The Japanese government keeps in touch with the United States and Europe on sanctions and cuts to Russia's gas and oil supplies. In addition, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is holding diplomatic conversations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE leaders to ensure an uninterrupted energy supply to Japan. Increasing the use of nuclear energy, on the other hand, is evaluated more positively in various countries, with the effect of the Russia-Ukraine war. It will be clear what Japan's moderate attitude about nuclear energy after many years and the governmental evaluations will bring in the coming days.