Japan Moving Forward – Needs Nuclear

by Margaret Harding

I teach a class every other spring at Iowa State University. A major in nuclear engineering is no longer an option, however the university has created a minor, where I give nuclear energy context to students who are studying mostly in a different discipline. I call the first month “Disaster Month” and spend a week on each of the major commercial accidents in our industry—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Until this year, Fukushima was a current event, as my students were mostly college juniors and seniors in 2011. This year, almost all of my students were in high school at the time and MUCH less aware of what happened in Japan.

For each disaster, I talk about the type of reactor, how it works, and important systems relevant to the event in my first lecture. The second lecture is a detailed blow-by-blow of the accident itself, up through a point at which the reactor is stable. Finally, we discuss the impact of the events on society, both in the area around the reactor and more broadly.

It is this bigger look I will address here. The specifics of the impact on technology are pretty well known, but I think we lose sight of the other impacts of an event like this.

Economic impact

The economic impact to Japan was enormous, and continues to affect them even now. Prior to 2011, Japan was a net trade exporter. With the exception of a slump in 2008/9, Japan had been running a $50 billion trade surplus. In other words, they were exporting $50 billion worth of goods and services MORE than they were importing. In 2011, Japan flipped that on its head and was a net IMPORTER of $50 billion worth of goods and services. In 2012 and 2013, the trend worsened. In 2013, the last year for which I could get data, Japan was a net importer of nearly $150 billion worth of goods and services. A large factor in this continuing deficit is in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas that the islands desperately need to keep factories working, homes lit and warm, and people moving from home to work every day. Worse, companies have moved off shore from Japan to access cheaper electricity. They may never return to the islands.

image source: Harding

This huge trade deficit is one of the main reasons the Japanese government is continuing to work to restart nuclear reactors. It has been a slow slog for the new regulator and the utilities to figure out which reactors can be restarted, what repairs and modifications need to be done, and which reactors will never be restarted.


Earthquake and tsunami impact

The human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami is far worse, and still not considered worthy of reporting to the world at large. One of my students, trying to better understand the devastation of that earthquake and the tsunami, found a video that was a montage of videos that showed the earthquake itself (huge buildings swaying, people knocked off their feet, the liquefaction of the very soil), and then progresses to a series of videos of the tsunami from dozens of villages and cities up and down the coast of Japan (cars and boats sweeping by in the water, along with parts of buildings and roads). The horror in the background voices needed no translation.

Watching that video gave me a visceral reminder of the days immediately after the earthquake, when the US media was almost solely focused on the nuclear power plants at Fukushima and ignored the human catastrophe that was all around them. More than 16,000 people died in the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Many more thousands lost their homes and their businesses. The piles of debris are slowly being taken care of, but many thousands of evacuees are still unable to return home, NOT because of the Fukushima nuclear accident, but because of the tsunami devastation.

Japan needs clean electricity. The islands have no fossil fuel assets of their own, and as much as some would wish it to be true, renewable energy cannot provide all of what Japan needs. We in the nuclear industry need to keep helping Japan and the rest of the world gain access to nuclear energy to meet their electricity needs.

Margaret HardingMargaret Harding has 34 years of experience in the nuclear industry. She enjoys writing the occasional blog to educate and entertain members of the public, the industry, and government types.


8 thoughts on “Japan Moving Forward – Needs Nuclear

  1. Margaret Harding

    Fukushima 5 and 6 will be decommissioned along with the rest of the site. TEPCO agreed that no units on the site will ever be restarted.

  2. Dr K S Parthasarathy

    You have succinctly shown the impact of the accident on the export-import status in Japan.

    On May 11, 2015, four years after the Fukushima nuclear accident, The Japan Times reported that a panel of nuclear experts largely approved a government report saying that atomic power remains the cheapest source of electricity despite the rising safety costs triggered by the 2011 Fukushima core meltdowns. Though the Government expects a glut in solar power, it wants to make nuclear power account for 20 to 22 per cent of Japan’s electricity supply by 2030.
    The report estimates that the cost of coal-fired power is ¥12.9 per kWh; liquefied natural gas ¥13.4 per kWh; Wind power ¥34.7; solar power up to ¥16.4, geothermal power ¥16.8, and hydropower up to ¥27.1 per kWh, all of them much higher than nuclear.

    I wrote a brief review titled “Nuclear power in Japan post Fukushima” In The Hindu ,a popular Indian daily.This may be accessed at:


  3. Carl L

    I agree with Dennis, good article. I find it curious that there has not been an effort to restart Fukushima 5 & 6. To my knowledge, these units were not affected by the tsunami and could be providing power to their citizens. What better unit to operate safely than one where the LPZ has already evacuated.

  4. Dennis Mosebey

    Great article! Thank you for putting in perspective the impact of nuclear accident compared to tsunami and earthquake. It is sad that human toll from nature was ignored by press.

  5. Levi Gardner

    I had no idea Japan’s trade deficit had climbed so high. Well presented, thanks for sharing!

  6. Nurul Islam Mukul

    Nuclear Energy can produced abaundantly with less fuel cost. Nuclear energy is a clean energy and it does not pollute the environment like the Oil & Gas does. Therefore, nuclear energy should take the ‘base loads’ of the world electricity grid. We should campaign vigorously to build nuclear power plants in every countris of the world to produce bulk of electricity (70%-80%) like France to protect the environment from the carbon destruction caused by burning coal, Oil, & Gas.

  7. Naphtali Mokgalapa

    Hello, Margaret Harding, recently I have taken an interest in historical accidents that occurred in our nuclear industry over the years. I find what you are discussing in your class interesting and something that would be informative.

    Would it be possible for you to make your lectures available to me for learning purposes. Let me know if this is possible. I am reading a couple of books on this and seeking to broaden my knowledge. Thank you.

    Naphtali Mokgalapa

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