American Viewpoints on Japan’s ‘Zero Nuclear’ Option

Lamar Alexandar

Keynote speaker Lamar Alexandar speaking at the event.

The Howard Baker Forum, together with The Heritage Foundation, held an event December 5 to discuss “American Viewpoints on Japan’s Zero Nuclear Option.” The event was the fifth session of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable. Participants shared their ideas on necessary improvements to nuclear safety, as well as implications of Japan’s proposed option to abandon or reduce dependence on nuclear power.

“Much is at stake for both our nations,” said Scott Campbell, Director of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable, who also said that Japan’s decisions would affect “the future of energy worldwide.”

Japanese Nuclear Policy

Ichiro Takahara, Director-General of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy within Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), shed light on deliberations behind Japan’s new energy policy and the factors that will influence its energy policy plans. Takahara said the country’s new nuclear safety regulations will be active by July 2013.

Citing public opinion polls, Takahara said “Japanese people want a society not dependent on nuclear power — but there is no consensus on how quickly to achieve this goal.”

Takahara noted that major considerations in driving the direction of their future nuclear policy will include:

  • Maintaining a stable energy supply
  • Taking a realistic step to expand green energy
  • Considering implications for global warming
  • Ensuring competitiveness of Japanese industry

Jack Spencer, Senior Research Fellow on Nuclear Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation, observed about the current policy directions: “The plan seems to be full of contradictions.” He pointed to Japan’s declared need to remain an exporter of nuclear technology, which would be challenged if Japan pulled away from nuclear energy within the country.

U.S. Nuclear Policy

The Honorable William Ostendorff, Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), commented on how the accident at Fukushima has affected U.S. nuclear policy. “There’s no imminent risk posed by existing plants… We made a conscious decision to not stop our construction licensing operations.”

The Commissioner also said the NRC has taken “an integrated, prioritized approach to ensure any actions taken enhanced safety, and would not confuse the landscape without adding to safety.”

The NRC drew on lessons learned from the accident at Three Mile Island, where there “were many action items the NRC took, and many were needed. But there were many action items taken that were not needed, and that just added to the confusion and the noise,” said Ostendorff.

Impacts of Japan’s Nuclear Policy Decisions

Many participants commented that Japan’s decisions in the nuclear realm would have far-reaching impacts.

“There’s no more important bilateral international relationship than that between Japan and the U.S. — bar none,” said keynote speaker Senator Lamar Alexander.

“We’re pulling for Japan because the better Japan does, the better the U.S. does. Our economies are so interconnected. That’s why this decision is so important to us,” said Alexander, who also commented on the critical potential implications of the decision for national and global security.

Japan is the third largest producer of nuclear power behind France and the United States. Before the nuclear accident at Fukushima, nuclear power produced 27 percent of Japan’s electricity.

Alexander said that Japan’s recent hiatus from nuclear energy has had a major impact, including a higher number of heat stroke victims over the summer, and the need to limit light and air conditioning use. Utilities now have new costs for purchasing oil and natural gas. In fact, Japan increased its use of gas and oil fuels by 36 percent in first half of this year.

“Once it’s operating, there’s no other form of energy that’s as reliable and cheap as nuclear energy,” said the senator. “The idea of maintaining energy needs without increasing reliance on nuclear is unrealistic.”

He also said that even though the U.S. is realizing the benefits of a boom in natural gas, the price of natural gas is volatile, and large utilities which must plan ahead by 10 years cannot rely on predicted costs of natural gas. 

“Zero Nuclear” Policy: Implications for Environment, Business, Global Security

Finally, a panel of industry experts, thought leaders and scientists discussed what Japan’s proposal to abandon nuclear power would mean for the global economy, security, the environment and more.

Industry panelists commented on the business aspects of the decision. “Complete phase-out of nuclear in Japan will be detrimental to our ability to compete,” said Ruth Ravitz Smith, Senior Vice President of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. “Japan should realize that a commitment domestically is important to the global market as well.”

Smith also weighed in on how decisions now will affect the environment tomorrow and beyond. “Policies supportive of clean energy will be very important going forward… There’s a real recognition that reducing carbon footprint requires consideration of increased nuclear energy.”

Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, also connected Japan’s policies to prospects for peaceful and secure global relationships. Ferguson said Japan is a critical leader in ensuring nuclear nonproliferation, citing a new report.

The issue of regaining public trust was raised repeatedly. The response of Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, was that “the only way to rebuild trust is for people to see that you’re doing something differently. You need to look at lessons learned from across the globe, and take the best of those and make your program the best.”

Fertel also reminded the audience of the fundamental importance of these decisions. “When I look at nuclear energy, I look at it in the context of why we have it. We have it to produce electricity. Electricity is the lifeblood of not just energy but of quality of life.”

In closing, Dr. Shunsuke Kondo, Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, evoked a powerful quote from David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979:

“We should fix nuclear energy, not extirpate it.”