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Japanese Fossil Fuel Imports Surged Following the Fukushima Disaster

Increasing Fossil Fuel Consumption

Despite the country’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, Japan dramatically increased imports of oil, gas, and coal following the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Japan also continues to provide billions in support to fossil fuel companies, both domestically and internationally, through continued fiscal support and public financing systems (Chen, 2018). Almost immediately after the nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima, Japanese leaders decided to shut down all of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors. Closing all of Japan’s nuclear reactors at once caused energy imports into Japan to surge to 85 percent of its energy requirements, which caused coal, oil, and gas consumption to increase dramatically (Conca, 2019). The natural resource challenges following the Fukushima disaster, coupled with the impacts of increased fossil fuel consumption, have resulted in numerous adverse impacts to human health and the environment.

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The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown

The Fukushima nuclear power plant incident is a prime example of a disaster that has created a complex transboundary resource management challenge. In March 2011, an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people in Japan and initiated a massive nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Thousands of tons of radioactive water were discharged from the critically damaged nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean (Grossman, 2011). The radioactive atomic particles that were created as a byproduct of the fission process that powered the Fukushima plant immediately contaminated the marine environment off the eastern coast of central Japan. While most radioactive particles naturally decay, their varying rates of natural decomposition have led to concerns related to the bioaccumulation of persistent pollutants that could have a rippling effect throughout the food chain (Malik, 2013). Following this nuclear disaster, fear about the uncertain impacts to both human and environmental systems were spread throughout the global community.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster created immense global concerns about how the radioactive waste would impact marine ecosystems and human health. While there have been numerous incidents over the past half-century in which radioactive substances have been released into bodies of water, the scale of the Fukushima nuclear disaster made this incident particularly worrisome. Many scientists believe that the vastness of the ocean has helped to dilute the nuclear contamination. However, tests have shown that high levels of radioactive waste have been found dozens of miles off the coast of Japan, which suggests that this disaster could still have many adverse global implications (Grossman, 2011).

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Concerns about Radioactivity and Long-Term Human Health Implications

For scientists, the primary concern is that the radioactive substances will climb the marine food chain to ultimately impact humans who consume seafood. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Marine Environment Laboratory has conducted extensive studies that show how marine phytoplankton can absorb radioactive materials from contaminated seawater, become eaten by larger organisms, and inadvertently transport persistent radioactive pollutants throughout the food chain. (Pacchioli, 2013). Since there are no rigid boundaries in the ocean, the main concern is related to the diffusion of high levels of radioactivity throughout the surrounding region.

Following the nuclear disaster, Japan banned Fukushima’s fishermen from selling 36 types of fish and other marine organisms in an effort to prevent the spread of radioactive substances (Tabuchi, 2012). While the actual impacts of the nuclear waste entering the marine environment are still not fully understood, Japan enacted precautionary restrictions to limit risk to human health. However, with some of the radioactive chemicals having a half-life of nearly 30 years, does this mean that Japan should ban fishing off the coast of Fukushima for decades to come? Japanese officials expect that a temporary fishing ban will allow the radioactive substances to diffuse throughout the ocean to levels that are not harmful to human health. Studies from previous incidents in the Irish, Kara, and Barents Seas show that radioactive substances are able to be transported with ocean currents, become embedded within marine sediment, and have the ability to climb the marine food web (Grossman, 2011).

Containing the Spread of Radiation

While Japan has taken precautionary measures to limit the spread of radioactive material throughout the food chain, some countries still banned seafood imports from the country. Despite the U.S. not implementing a nationwide ban on Japanese seafood, American policymakers have banned all food imports from the regions closest to the Fukushima meltdown (Grossman, 2011). In general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not advised American consumers to alter their food consumption as a result of this nuclear disaster (FDA, 2015). Regular testing has been conducted to show that the U.S. food supply does not contain radioactive substances that would cause harm to consumers. Moreover, Japanese regulators have adopted one of the world’s most strict standards on radiation in seafood in an effort to ease global concerns (Worland, 2016). While high levels of radiation have not been detected within the global food supply, it’s imperative for researchers to continue to sample and measure radioactivity within the surrounding region to evaluate how these contaminants can spread throughout marine environments.

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Electricity Prices and Mortality

In addition to increasing global concerns related to radiation exposure, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown also contributed to a notable increase in electricity prices and public mortality throughout Japan. While no Japanese citizens are known to have died directly from radiation poisoning, the closing of all the country’s 54 nuclear power plants caused electricity prices to soar and reduced overall energy consumption, which increased mortality for Japanese residents during the coldest months of the winter (Conca, 2019). Moreover, studies have also shown that replacing nuclear power with power generated from fossil fuel imports led to an increase in deaths caused by upper respiratory problems. While the decision to shut down all of the country’s nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster was a prudent decision made by Japanese leaders, the thought of the indirect environmental and human health impacts from increasing energy generation from fossil fuels was largely absent from the decision-making process.

David Weinstein, a professor of finance, international macroeconomics, and international trade at Columbia University, predicts that if Japan would not have shut down its unaffected nuclear reactors, and instead, reduced coal, oil, and natural gas imports, about 9,493 lives would have been saved in 2012 because of a drop in emissions-related air pollution (Conca, 2019). Even with the rise in air pollution and increased electricity costs following the closing of all the country’s nuclear power plants, antinuclear public attitudes surged around the world following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Only a few months after the accident, Germany announced major plans to completely phase out its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. However, unlike Japan, Germany’s plan incorporates robust investment in alternative forms of energy generation from renewables, rather than simply importing more fossil fuels.

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Avoiding Premature Deaths from Fossil Fuels

Research conducted by Pushker Kharecha and Makiko Sato of the Columbia University Earth Institute conveys how the United States and Western Europe could avoid nearly 100,000 premature deaths and about 7.7 billion tons of carbon emissions if policymakers focused on reducing energy generation from coal rather than nuclear (Kharecha  & Sato, 2019). From a political, economic, and social standpoint, the decisions made after the Fukushima disaster have proven to be very costly for Japan. Ironically, the costs that Japan was preparing to have to address related to radiation-induced cancer and death never materialized. In fact, no immediate radiological health effects have resulted from the disaster (Conca, 2019). While scientists continue to remain concerned about the bioaccumulation of persistent radiological pollutants, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found no member of the over 20,000 workers that worked directly adjacent to the meltdown zone received any doses of radiation high enough to cause adverse health effects.

The overall cost of the Fukushima disaster has had an immense impact on the Japanese economy. Experts expect the total clean-up cost to be about $15 billion over the next 20 years and over $60 billion in refugee compensation (Conca, 2019). Between 2011 and 2013, spending related to increased consumption of crude oil and petroleum products by Japanese power plants increased by about $30 billion each year (EIA, 2019). These costs were largely passed on to the Japanese consumers, whose electric bills rose dramatically during that period of time. Moreover, since shuttering all of the country’s nuclear power plants, Japan’s trade deficit has become the worst in its history, and Japan is now the second biggest net importer of fossil fuels in the world, directly behind China (Conca, 2019). Furthermore, the total costs associated with the earthquake and the tsunami that initially caused the nuclear meltdown are expected to be in excess of $250 billion.

Returning to Nuclear Power Generation

Prior to the nuclear accident caused by the largest tsunami in recorded history, nuclear energy provided enough power to supply about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity needs (Conca, 2019). Within only 14 months of the disaster, Japan’s nuclear power generation had dropped to zero percent. In 2018, Japan restarted five nuclear reactors that were closed down after 2011. By 2019, Japan had a total of nine operating nuclear power plants that came online since the Fukushima disaster. Total electricity generation capacity of these power plants has been approximately 8.7 gigawatts, which allowed Japan to begin to reduce its imports of fossil fuels. While the antinuclear sentiment is still very much present in Japan, long-term energy policy reports call for the nuclear share of total electricity generation in Japan to reach between 20 to 22 percent by 2030, which would require the country to open up a total of 30 nuclear reactors (EIA, 2019).

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The Future of Fossil Fuels in Japan

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has been working diligently to help the country reduce imports of fossil fuels from foreign countries. This authority continues to work with local utility operators to recertify the country’s remaining nuclear power plants so that they can begin producing power again. By the end of 2019, an additional six reactors had received initial approval, 12 were under review, and eight had yet to begin the process of being recertified (EIA, 2019). Following Japan’s dramatic shift to more fossil fuels after the 2011 crisis, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oil Change International (OCI), Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) published a G7 Fossil Fuel Subsidy Scorecard, which labeled Japan as the second worst performer when it came to reforming the fossil fuel industry, with only the United States doing a worse job (Chen, 2018). Moreover, Japan has been criticized from the international community about the country’s lack of transparency with regards to fiscal support for fossil fuel consumption and production.

Despite the adverse social, environmental, and economic impacts from increasing fossil fuel imports, Japan has continued to provide fiscal support for fossil fuel exploration, which is at odds with the country’s vision for sustainability. Continued support for coal mining and other hydrocarbon production has made Japan the target of international criticism. While Japan currently spends over $12 billion a year to support fossil fuel subsidies, pressure from the United Nations and sustainable development organizations may start to shift Japanese energy policy in the coming decades.

Sources

Chen, H. (2018). “Japan: Second Worst in G7 at Reforming Fossil Fuel Subsidies.” Natural Resources Defense Council.

Conca, J. (2019). “Shutting Down All Of Japan’s Nuclear Plants After Fukushima Was A Bad Idea.” Forbes.

EIA. (2019). “Nuclear reactor restarts in Japan displacing LNG imports in 2019.” U.S. Energy Information Administration.

FDA. (2015). “FDA Response to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Facility Incident.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Grossman, E. (2011). “Radioactivity in the Ocean: Diluted, But Far from Harmless.” Yale Environnent 360.

Kharecha, P., & Sato, Makiko. (2019). “How Energy Choices After Fukushima Impacted Human Health and the Environment.” Columbia University Earth Institute.

Malik, O. (2013). “Fukushima radiation found in food webs in the Pacific.” Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Pacchioli, D. (2013). “How Is Fukushima’s Fallout Affecting Marine Life?” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Tabuchi, H. (2012). “Fears Accompany Fishermen in Japanese Disaster Region.” The New York Times.

Worland, J. (2016). “The Lingering Effects of Fukushima on Fish.” Time.

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