Columnist Dan Gardner: “Why Japan took the nuclear risk”: Quick-fix energy during 1973-4 Oil Shocks

IN APPROPRIATE, A novel of culture, kidnapping, and revenge in modern Japan, By ARUDOU Debito

Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to JapanForeign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japansourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS on iTunes, subscribe free

Hi Blog. Here’s a very thoughtful article from Ottawa Citizen newspaper columnist Dan Gardner on why Japan took its nuclear route. Dunno why this guy knows so much about a topic otherwise so esoteric on the other side of the world (but good research should make that irrelevant anyway). People who know more about this subject are welcome to comment, of course, but Gardner answered a number of questions I had.  Give it a read.  Note the citation of our new Japanese citizen applicant Donald Keene (now literally one of the movers with the shakers; sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) on Japan’s economic and emotional fragility.  Arudou Debito


Why Japan took the nuclear risk

When making choices about energy, there are no danger-free, cost-free solutions


The Japanese government undertook a rapid expansion of nuclear power after the oil shocks of the early 1970s to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy, despite the high earthquake risk in the region.

Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Now this. Within hours of the first reports of trouble at Japan’s nuclear power plants, calls for abolition could be heard around the world. “Time to shut down this nation’s nuclear energy program” wrote American pundit Keith Olbermann. Greenpeace and other environmental groups mobilized. “The nuclear risk is not a risk that can really be controlled,” said a French Green party politician. Nuclear power must go.

With Japan’s plants suffering explosions and officials struggling to avoid meltdowns, it’s hard not to agree. Nuclear power is a demonstrable hazard. In Japan, a land constantly rattled by seismic activity, where a disaster like Friday’s was literally just a matter of time, nuclear power is downright dangerous. Why risk it?

People who say that seldom mean it as a question. It’s a conclusion in drag. But let’s treat it instead as a genuine question. Why risk it? Why should we build and operate nuclear power plants knowing that they do pose real dangers, whatever the magnitude of those dangers may be?

And why, in particular, would Japan build nuclear power plants on land that so often buckles and heaves? The answer to this second question lies in recent history. It’s worth having a look because it’s also a pretty good answer to the first question.

As recently as the 1950s, Japan was a poor country with a huge and growing population. Some far-sighted experts looked ahead and saw misery and mass starvation.

But in the 1960s, Japanese manufacturing grew rapidly. Its success was based on keeping things cheap. Cheap labour. Cheap prices. Cheap quality. In the United States, the main Japanese market, “Made in Japan” meant the product cost little and was worth what it cost.

Japan got wealthier. Living standards improved.

In the late 1960s, the American economy stumbled and in 1971 the dollar was devalued. The yen shot up. But the quality of Japanese goods had improved and so Japanese manufacturing thrived despite the rising cost of its goods.

Nothing less than a miracle was underway. A nation was rising from poverty to the ranks of the wealthiest people on Earth. Some even imagined a day when Japan would lead.

Then, like an earthquake, the Arab oil embargo struck.

The Japanese miracle was built on a foundation of cheap energy -mostly oil, mostly from the Middle East. The oil embargo of late 1973 plunged the world into the frightening recession of 1974, and no one suffered worse than Japan.

“The recent period of Japanese glory, from 1969 to 1973, when it seemed a small, distant country would overtake the giants of the West, lasted longer than a dream, but it has ended with dramatic suddenness,” wrote Donald Keene, an American professor of Japanese culture, in the New York Times. It was March 3, 1974. “The same people who only a few months ago were talking and acting as if the future held unlimited possibilities of economic expansion now gloomily announce, not without a touch of masochism, that they live in a country completely at the mercy of others for survival.”

Many Japanese were sure their country would sink back into poverty. The old fears of mass starvation and environmental ruin returned. “Prophecies of disaster abound,” Keene noted.

The Japanese government responded with a sweeping, multi-pronged campaign to reduce Japan’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil. Conservation and energy-efficiency was a major component. So was a rapid expansion of nuclear power.

Of course the Japanese knew their seismological reality.

Indeed, Japanese earthquake science and engineering is the best in the world. But the Japanese also knew the danger of the status quo. It was a trade-off.

The transition worked. Japan’s rise resumed and within a decade it was one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It was also one of the most energy-efficient. And one of the top producers of nuclear power, with onequarter of its electricity coming from the plants the world is watching now. This story does not demonstrate that nuclear power is right for Japan, or anyone else. But it does show, I believe, that choices about energy always involve trade-offs.

Which risks are acceptable? How much risk? And what are we prepared to pay to avoid or mitigate threats? There are costs and hazards associated with every choice and so these questions are unavoidable. There are no risk-free, cost-free solutions.

Some deny this basic reality. Certain environmental groups claim to have plans which would allow us to do away entirely with coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power over the next several decades. Renewable energy would replace them all. The cost would be minimal. Indeed, it would spur innovation and produce millions of new jobs.

It would be wonderful if it were possible. Unfortunately, it’s not. One of the world’s leading energy experts, Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, has called these claims “not just naive [but] profoundly irresponsible.”

But Smil also criticizes those at the other extreme, who see nothing undesirable about the status quo and believe any significant shift to renewable energy would be prohibitively expensive.

We can do better. But it requires that we first understand basic realities, including the most basic: There are costs and risks in everything.


5 comments on “Columnist Dan Gardner: “Why Japan took the nuclear risk”: Quick-fix energy during 1973-4 Oil Shocks

  • Wow, this is an article that seriously gets it right. Thanks for sharing. I had been contorting myself over this blog editorial:

    There was a program that came on Japanese national TV where a US professor posed questions related to energy choices and risk. The question is whether Japan does what it can to phase out nuclear as fast as possible, or if it works to minimize the risk and carry on with business-as-usual. In the first choice, a reduction in standard of living is said to be necessary.

    But people question this, they say “I think it’s wrong to say that choice requires a reduction in the quality of our lives”. So what do you say there? Are they just perceiving the evidence to be different? I think that it’s much deeper than that and rooted in the fundamental understanding of the world and how trade-offs are a part of life.

    I come to the ultimate conclusion in dealing with this stance that the best approach is to just… clarify that I disagree with that principle. If I thought that abundant solar power could be had for a price less that nuclear and the other options, then I would be on their side of the argument. So convince me, you’ll have a new convert, and a valuable one at that.

    Alas, the arguments are created in a vacuum of objectivity. Requiring them to substantiate this fantasy ends it fairly quickly.

  • This particular risk was not a calculation as a result of the 1973-4 oil shocks.
    The Fukushima #1 plant began construction in 1967 and would have been in planning and engineering for years before.

    That is not to say that overall policy was not informed by the oil shock, which it surely was. This article has right one thing for sure… energy has been and will continue to be a set of trade offs. And not only risk/reward tradeoffs either.

  • There is little doubt about the benefits of nuclear power plants and much uncertainty about the costs. The idea of making nuclear power plants now and waiting until later to figure out what to do with their wastes was pure folly. Some 80% of the radioactive material housed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is from “spent” fuel rods which have no place to go. Add to that the radioactive water that is accumulating with nowhere to go and the contaminated soil and buildings with nowhere to go. Someone should have thought about this before constructing a nuclear power industry, but no, this was an issue to be kicked down the road when some future scientists would come up with a quick and easy solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. The future has come and we are no closer to a solution.

    The costs of the Fukushima disaster are going to be astronomical. Estimates for just shutting down and cleaning up the on-site facilities all run over 10 trillion yen. The value of land within a twenty kilometer radius of the plant, about 620 million square meters, will add another 6 trillion to the direct costs (assuming 10,000 yen per square meter). The costs of caring for 200,000 displaced people will run another trillion, or so, per year. Then, there are the indirect costs, in lost productivity, reputation, quality of food and water, the entire tourism and entertainment industries. Foreign tourism to Miyazaki, which was totally unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami, is down nearly 100% (to near zero). Tepco will not be able to foot those costs. The direct costs alone will run well over 50,000 yen for each person living in Japan. The indirect costs will be much greater. And this is on top of the costs of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

    Nuclear power is penny wise and pound foolish. The benefits are overwhelming outweighed by the risks. If the true costs of nuclear power had been properly calculated at the beginning, the plants would never have been built.

  • This article doesn’t mention the nuclear weapons angle. Japan has one of the largest stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium in the world. Add that to their rocket technology, and you have a de facto nuclear power.

    They had a nuclear weapons program during WWII, but couldn’t develop their own weapon in time.

    Japan is a “screwdriver’s turn” away from possessing nuclear weapons, and plutonium from their power plants is an essential ingredient.

  • E.P. Lowe says:


    Japan is much more than a “screwdriver’s turn” away from possessing usable nuclear weapons. They have no testing facilities, no experience in producing nuclear weapons, no experience in weapons delivery, no carriers for nuclear weapons, and a public viscerally averse to nuclear weapons. The last point is the clincher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>