I’ve written before about the dubious claim that Japan’s economy is doomed without nuclear energy. The government has promoted this narrative strongly, and the media have gone along for the ride. Most reports misleadingly label the electric utilities’ fossil fuel purchases as the country’s total fossil fuel imports, and they wrongly interpret rising fuel cost as rising fuel volume. The statistics presented below, showing fossil fuel imports in units of energy (1 Btu=1055 Joules), cast doubt on the myth, as they reveal that the 2011 crisis has had a fairly small impact on overall fossil fuel consumption. Discussion follows after the listing of the statistics.
Energy Statistics for Japan
1. Petroleum Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
6% increase from 2010-2012
2. Natural Gas Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
20% increase from 2010 to 2012
3. Coal Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
1% decrease from 2010 to 2012
4. Total Energy Consumption, Petroleum+Natural Gas+Coal (quadrillion Btu)
5. Electricity Generation (billion kilowatt-hours)
8% decrease from 2010 to 2012
Value of Japanese currency (per $US)
January 2011: 82 yen
April 2014: 103 yen
25% decrease in value
The Japanese government reports its trade deficit and energy costs in yen. The cost of importing fossil fuel has been influenced by changing world prices and by the Japanese government’s choice to decrease the value of the yen by 25%. Thus, the crisis is mostly one of cost, not of volume of fossil fuel consumed. Bloomberg Business Week reported recently:
Japan spent 27.4 trillion yen on fossil fuels in 2013, up 50 percent from 18.1 trillion yen in 2010, the year before the Fukushima disaster, according to Trade Ministry data.
Because of the yen devaluation of 25%, we know that the figure of 50% would have been only a 25% increase if the yen had kept its value. The Bloomberg report doesn’t tell us how much global energy costs have changed since 2010, nor does it tell us about the volume imported. However, number 4 in the list above shows the total fossil fuel consumption increased by 7.3% between 2010 and 2012, which indicates that the remainder of the cost difference, that which is not explained by currency depreciation, must be happening because of changes in the world market price.
From this analysis, it can be seen that the loss of nuclear power in 2011 did not lead to a dramatic increase in fossil fuel consumption. The increase in natural gas imports seems to have been offset by energy efficiency, and declines in the consumption of electricity, trends which were already underway before the 2011 disaster.
The extra fossil fuel required in the absence of nuclear power doesn’t appear significant in the statistics listed above because it is a small fraction of total fossil fuel consumption for all uses (transportation, industry, heating, cooking and electricity generation). In 2012, petroleum accounted for 9.532 quadrillion Btu, while natural gas and coal accounted for about the same, 9.646 quadrillion Btu. Petroleum accounts for very little electricity generation, but coal and gas are used primarily for electricity generation, so we can see that only about half of fossil fuel imports are used to make electricity. This is a distinction that the Japanese government and the media have either deliberately or negligently refused to make. Almost all reporting on the fossil fuel import problem has framed it as if electricity generation consumed all fossil fuel imports, as if the 30% loss of generating capacity (caused by the nuclear shutdown) would lead directly to a 30% increase in fossil fuel imports. There has indeed been an import shock to the economy, but it is much more of a shock to the electric utilities. There is something remarkable in the fact that they confuse their extra purchases of fossil fuel with the whole nation’s purchases of fuel. It shows how much they have developed a l’état c’est moi attitude.
It is said that nuclear energy used to generate 30% of Japan’s electricity, but it has become well understood since 2011 that this capacity will never be reached again (another issue which is discussed in the Bloomberg report). So even if it were true that fossil fuel imports are destroying the economy, nuclear wouldn’t provide much of a solution. An awful lot of money is being spent now to upgrade nuclear facilities in the hope that restarts will be approved, but much of this spending will end up being in vain. Nuclear, if restarts happen and no accidents ensue, will never again generate the 30% share. Under the stricter rules for operating nuclear power plants, many will never be started again. It is either impossible to make them safe, or not economically viable to make them safe. Many of them are too old to continue operating under the stricter rules, Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni are out of the picture forever, and there is little chance that any old reactors will be replaced by new ones.
And all this is being done just to get back to the status of 2011--to eliminate that 7.3% extra in fossil fuel imports. Yet if most of the nuclear capacity can never be restored, then the best hope is to reduce this figure to 4% or 5%--something which could be done by continuing with conservation, renewable development and efficiency gains. Not mentioned at all in any of the plans are the costs of operating and regulating nuclear plants, and importing uranium. The Japanese government talks as if Cameco and Areva just mine, process and ship their product for free.
Japan has deliberately favored making exports cheaper with its yen devaluation, and thus created a false balance-of-trade crisis by making its energy imports 25% more expensive than they need to be. The solution is to export more, but for many reasons unrelated to nuclear energy, this is not happening. The trade deficit was destined to arise with or without the nuclear crisis.
This raises the question of whether the propaganda campaign about the balance of trade/energy problem is a deliberate smokescreen behind which the nuclear village is being resurrected. The LDP government wants to promote the export of Japanese nuclear technology and keep a vast portion of the nation’s revenue siphoned off to a parasitic class of rent-seekers. Everyone who has earned a living in nuclear now sees the money flow as an entitlement program, like it is right and fair that taxpayers and ratepayers should continue to support them as if they were deserving pensioners. It doesn’t matter that the nuclear industry serves no purpose and inflicts great harm and risk on society. For them, the only consideration is the continuation of the established flow of money.