Leaving Tokyo in the Dark

The Fukushima disaster left Japan with an ongoing energy crisis. What Washington can—and should—do to help.

The Fukushima 1 nuclear-power plant.Darting from one air-conditioned space to another in Washington, it is sometimes easy to forget how hot the summer can be. Secure access to affordably priced energy really does matter. And it is similarly easy to think that only developing nations can face real energy challenges in the twenty-first century. A week in Tokyo's August heat and humidity is a stark reminder that a wealthy society, a large economy and advanced technology are not enough to avoid a crisis. Americans would do well to remember this—and with modest changes in U.S. policy, they could do some good for a key ally.

Japan's energy crisis is a direct consequence of the country's March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, which led to a dramatic emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the aftermath, Japan's fifty-plus nuclear reactors shut down one-by-one for safety checks. Then they stayed off as local and regional officials refused to authorize restarting the plants in the face of public anger and fear. Seventeen months later, officials have approved only two of Japan's reactors for reactivation.

Japan's post-disaster rejection of nuclear power eliminated the source of 30 percent of the country's electricity generation. The results most visible during a recent visit to Tokyo were sharply reduced lighting and unavailable conveniences, such as electric hand dryers in public restrooms. Air conditioners in government and private office buildings were set above the comfort level despite steamy ninety-degree-plus summer temperatures.

These and other conservation measures show how challenging and costly it has been for Japan to replace its nuclear-generation capacity so suddenly. The country has been forced to import considerable additional amounts of fossil fuels, especially liquefied natural gas, from producers well aware of its dire need.

Japan's citizens generally have accepted changes in their daily lives, in no small part because their government has shielded them from the biggest consequence of the abrupt shift away from nuclear power—a sharp increase in the cost of electricity. Utilities are shouldering this burden and plunging into the red as a result. Understandably, power companies are increasingly eager to turn on idle reactors and are pressuring politicians and officials.

Thus far, however, the public pressure to keep nuclear plants turned off has largely prevailed and shows few signs of letting up. For the last several weeks, anti-nuclear power demonstrations have become regular events outside the prime minister's official residence every Friday after work. The crowd looks impressive from the street and had forced police to block access a nearby metro station when I walked by after meetings in the parliamentary office buildings next door. Several people described the protests to me as the most significant public demonstrations in Tokyo since the signing of the original U.S.-Japan security treaty five decades ago. But they drew an important distinction—in contrast to the unrest of the early 1960s, today's protests are unstructured affairs organized via online social media rather than traditional political groups.

With nuclear power still remaining mostly out of Japan's energy mix, the government and energy companies and utilities are looking at a variety of longer-term options to get the natural gas they would need instead, including building a pipeline from Russia's Sakhalin Island or a natural-gas liquefaction plant in Vladivostok. Aside from commercial considerations, neither will be politically expedient due to a continuing dispute over four islands occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II and still controlled by Moscow. The Japanese call them the Northern Territories; for Russians, they are the Kuril Islands. Tokyo has limited its economic cooperation with Russia as a form of pressure to encourage negotiations, but Moscow appears unlikely to turn over the islands. In fact, some Japanese analysts see Russia as even more committed to keeping them than in the past—they sit astride a route that Chinese ships take through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Arctic, trips that are increasingly troubling to Russian admirals.

Japan also has expressed strong interest in importing liquefied natural gas from the United States, a remarkable new possibility generated by massive increases in U.S. domestic production. However, while current U.S. law deems natural-gas exports to free-trade partners to be in the public interest—and consequently requires applications to these countries to be approved rapidly and routinely—those seeking to export gas to other nations must endure a longer process involving public comment. So Japan waits.

Although imports from the United States probably would be too limited to make a big dent in Japan's energy needs in the near future, some Japanese energy experts believe that the price could noticeably improve their bargaining position in dealing with other exporters. Given that Japan is in a true energy crisis, exports from America also would be a symbolic gesture toward a key ally. Hopefully the Energy Department will find a way to expedite a decision.

More importantly, the U.S. Congress should consider revising existing law. How could it not be in the public interest to export natural gas on commercially attractive terms to a nation that we have pledged to defend? The simplest option might be to amend existing law so that more exports—not only to free-trade partners but also to alliance partners—are automatically found to be “in the public interest.”

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