Japan's energy shift after the Fukushima disaster saw a surge in fossil fuel use. How does this impact their long-term sustainability goals?

Nuclear denial stifles Japan’s clean energy transition post-Fukushima

Japan's energy shift after the Fukushima disaster saw a surge in fossil fuel use. How does this impact their long-term sustainability goals?

The heightened awareness of climate change has led to a greater emphasis on the urgent development of renewable energy sources. Alongside this trend, nuclear power has emerged as a non-fossil fuel option to meet the energy demands of contemporary societies. However, emphasising nuclear power does not equate to advancing renewable energy.

In reality, investing in nuclear energy systems could divert attention and resources from developing renewables, hindering efforts to transition away from more environmentally harmful energy sources like fossil fuels and nuclear processes. The situation in Japan serves as a pertinent example.

Japan’s nuclear dilemma

The tragic events in earthquake-prone Japan underscored the dire consequences of relying heavily on nuclear power instead of transitioning to renewable energy sources. This decision not only hindered Japan’s progress toward its national energy objectives but also impeded its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, undermining its climate goals. 

A comparative glance at Germany proves illuminating. Following the “triple crisis” of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdowns, numerous Japanese scholars and activists advocated for a shift towards renewables. Japan’s unique technological and engineering prowess, coupled with its longstanding investments in hydropower and solar energy since the 1970s and 1980s, positioned it uniquely to embrace renewables in a manner unmatched by many other nations.

The energy landscape: Comparing Japan and Germany

Following the 3/11 disaster, rather than embracing renewables like Germany, Japan’s conservative leadership opted to continue developing nuclear energy. However, to compensate for the reduced nuclear energy supply, Japan increased its reliance on fossil fuel imports. Figures 1 and 2 present the proportion of electricity generated from fossil fuels and renewables, respectively, in Germany and Japan from 1985 to 2019.

Figure 1 starkly illustrates the surge in fossil fuel usage in Japan post-3/11. Although both nations witnessed a decline in nuclear power utilization, Figure 2 illustrates Germany’s rapid expansion of renewable energy alongside nuclear phaseout and fossil fuel reduction, surpassing Japan’s earlier lead.  Japan’s latest energy strategy aims to supply 22% of grid electricity from nuclear reactors by 2030, while Germany plans for 0%.

Figure 1. Share of Electricity from Fossil Fuels: Germany and Japan
Credit. Author
Figure 2. Share of Electricity from Renewables: Germany and Japan
Credit. Author

Unraveling the nuclear power complex

An analysis of a new dataset, as depicted in Figure 3, elucidates the interconnections among political, economic, and industry elites, showcasing how a longstanding nuclear energy-industrial complex advocated for the revival of nuclear power in Japan post-3/11. This complex wielded significant influence, shaping Japan’s energy policy after the Fukushima disaster.

Embedded within key business networks, state regulatory bodies, policy planning associations, and various civil society organizations, the nuclear power industry redirected the discourse away from the Fukushima meltdowns towards assurances of a gradual yet steadfast nuclear resurgence. Despite widespread public outcry and distrust following the Fukushima crisis, elites in Japan remained steadfast in their support for nuclear power.

Figure 3. Network Visualization of a Nuclear Energy Complex in Japan, 2006–2012.
Credit. Author

Japan’s nuclear industrial complex

Figure 3 illustrates the extensive ties forged through the career paths and shared board memberships of individuals from nine nuclear utilities and various government departments to prominent roles in Keidanren-affiliated companies, major universities, non-profit organisations, media firms, and others between 2006 and 2012 (detailed data and analysis are available in the full report by Dreiling and colleagues, 2023.

The outcome is a noteworthy dispersion of personnel linking a wide range of institutions, from local governments to the most influential corporate boards in the country.

The ten highlighted entities represent the most pivotal players within the larger network, with the size of each entity’s label corresponding to its betweenness centrality score, indicating its level of influence. Keidanren, Japan’s leading corporate federation, ranks second in centrality after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), forming significant cores within the network.

Throughout this period, METI shared personnel with 115 other entities in the network, notably establishing connections with eight of the nine nuclear utilities. Positioned between METI and Keidanren are several advocacy groups from the nuclear industry, major nuclear utilities, and various financial and manufacturing companies.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), along with Toshiba and Hitachi, serves as a bridge between Keidanren and METI, with officials from both institutions collaborating over numerous years.

The broader collaboration between industry and government is facilitated by organizations such as the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), established decades ago to foster and enhance a globally competitive nuclear power sector. JAIF ranks as the third most central entity in the network, maintaining extensive connections through personnel exchanges with major universities, media outlets, corporations, and government officials.

The network’s structure mirrors the close collaboration between the Japanese government, industry, and civil society in developing nuclear energy capacity since the late 1950s.

The influence of the nuclear-industrial complex

According to Kingston, Japan stands at the core of the global nuclear-industrial complex, surpassing all other nations in nuclear development expenditures. At the heart of this complex are some of the world’s largest corporations, including three Japanese firms involved in joint ventures to advance nuclear technology worldwide: Hitachi with General Electric, Toshiba with Westinghouse, and Mitsubishi with France’s Areva (later restructured into several entities).

Industries such as cement and steel benefit from lucrative contracts with these utilities, while major financial institutions provide insurance and financing for nuclear energy projects.

In response to criticism and public protests regarding the nuclear meltdown, Keidanren defended utility companies, with its members funneling financial support into the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP’s successful electoral strategies in December 2012 paved the way for a “nuclear renaissance,” advocating for the reinstatement and expansion of nuclear power generation despite public safety concerns and growing support for renewable energy.

This nuclear energy-industrial complex inadvertently hindered Japan’s progress towards a lower-carbon, conservation-oriented, and renewable future for national energy development. Furthermore, significant ecological consequences stemming from nuclear meltdowns remain unaddressed.

Various interconnected cleanup challenges related to the extensive radioactive waste produced by the reactor meltdowns persist unresolved, reflecting broader issues within the industry. These ongoing contradictions cannot be fully comprehended without acknowledging the role of elites associated with nuclear interests in contributing to human and ecological crises.

Select actions

The advancement and acceptance of renewable energy alternatives are crucial for tackling social and environmental energy-related challenges, notably climate change. A comprehensive grasp of the scientific principles, available options, and repercussions of energy-related choices is vital for fostering informed collective action. Here are some resources to aid in achieving these objectives:

  1. Join the Climate Action Network to learn more about a platform for renewable energy: https://climatenetwork.org/our-work/renewable-energy/
  2. Understand why nuclear energy is not renewable or sustainable: https://www.oneearth.org/the-7-reasons-why-nuclear-energy-is-not-the-answer-to-solve-climate-change/
  3. Educate ourselves about renewable energy in the United States: https://environmentamerica.org/center/articles/how-to-get-to-100-clean-energy-with-todays-technologies/
  4. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/21/us-can-get-to-100percent-clean-energy-without-nuclear-power-stanford-professor-says.html


Journal reference

Dreiling, M. C., Nakamura, T., & Braun, Y. A. (2024). Nuclear denial in Japan: the network power of an energy industrial complex. Theory and Society53(1), 1-39. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-023-09513-8

Michael C. Dreiling, Ph.D. - Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon specializing in political and environmental sociology. He is the author of two books, numerous research articles, and chapters, and is presently completing two books. His documentary film series with Matthew Eddy began with an award-winning feature-length film on Costa Rica’s demilitarized society – A Bold Peace – and is now proceeding with a three-part series titled Heiwa on Japan’s transformation from a militaristic empire to a relatively pacifist democracy. He is also serving as a co-editor for AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom.

Yvonne A. Braun is a professor and head of the Department of Global Studies in the School of Global Studies and Languages at the University of Oregon, specializing in international development, energy and the environment, globalization, gender, intersectionality, social movements, and inequality. Her scholarship has appeared in the Journal of Political Ecology, Health & Place, Gender & Society, Social Problems, the Journal of Global Ethics, the International Feminist Journal of Politics, the Journal of Environmental Management, and the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society.

Tomoyasu Nakamura is a professor in the School of Network and Information at Senshu University in Japan. He teaches information-related subjects and previously served as the dean of the school from 2007 to 2009. He earned his DSc in chemistry from the Tokyo University of Education (now the University of Tsukuba) in 1975. His current research areas include consumer movements, environmental movements, and the sociology of the Internet.