Japan's future shouldn't be a nuclear one. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg
Japan's future shouldn't be a nuclear one. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg

Three years after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami nearly triggered a nuclear cataclysm in central Japan, conditions at the shattered Dai-Ichi power plant in Fukushima don't inspire confidence. Radiation levels in the surrounding area will keep more than 150,000 residents from returning to their homes for years, if ever. Groundwater flowing under the rubbled reactors, where it is contaminated by radioactivity, is accumulating at the rate of 400 tons a day in more than 1,100 tanks, some of which are leaking the water into the nearby ocean. Dismantling the plant will call for an unprecedented removal of molten fuel from the three reactors that melted down; all told, the decommissioning process could take four decades and cost as much as 11 trillion yen ($106 billion). And that’s if things go well and, God forbid, another huge earthquake doesn’t hit.

Yet here’s where tragedy turns to farce: Last month, on the same day that Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced that a damaged power cable at the Dai-Ichi plant had shut down a vital cooling system, the Japanese government released its new Basic Energy Plan, which called nuclear power "an important base load energy source" and pushed for the reopening of many of Japan's 48 commercial reactors.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has always been something of a nuclear hawk. During his first term in office, for instance, he saw nuclear power as critical to achieving energy self-sufficiency in Japan. And it's true that the loss of Japan's reactors, which provided more than one-quarter of the country's electricity before 2011, has been a major hit to its economy. Japan is now the largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the second-largest importer of coal, and the third-largest importer of oil. Paying for that with a weaker yen has led its trade deficit to record surges. High energy costs, in turn, have hit the competitiveness of Japan's export industries.

Yet Abe's pro-nuke leanings -- the original language of his 2014 plan actually had to be toned down -- seem shortsighted, dangerous and even politically unwise. It's not as if Japan's seismic activity has slackened, and several of its reactors sit on or near faults. Although Japan has revamped its nuclear regulatory apparatus, its "nuclear village" -- a collusive nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and nuclear executives -- remains largely intact. As reactors come up for reauthorization, it's not clear that the new Nuclear Regulation Authority will have the spine or resources to put the public interest ahead of political pressure, especially when it comes from the top. Not only did a recent poll show that 69 percent of respondents wanted nuclear power phased out, but six former prime ministers -- including ex-nuclear champion Yasuhiro Nakasone and Abe's mentor Junichiro Koizumi -- have given it the big thumbs down. After three years, Japanese consumers can also see that life without nuclear power is hardly impossible, and it doesn't come with blackouts.

In the short term, there's considerable economic logic to reopening those plants with impeccable safety records and safeguards. Over time, however, the wiser course would be to follow the path laid out by Koizumi, who remains one of the country's most interesting and most popular politicians: more renewables, greater efficiency, and goodbye to the nuclear Godzilla. Right now, renewables play a relatively small part in Japan's energy mix. Yet in a fascinating article last December, Andrew DeWit of Rikkyo University talked about Koizumi's vision and laid out how Japan's energy path could change. Its power market is being deregulated, the number of independent power producers is rising (including new players such as Toyota Motor Corp.), and distributed and renewable power sources (as opposed to large plants plugged into centralized grids) are becoming more popular. Kyoto, which is hosting the Smart City Expo later this month, has just put forward an energy plan that relies on 15 percent conservation and a tripling of renewable power by 2020.

In some of his other writings, DeWit has highlighted the enormous gains to be had from increasing energy efficiency in Japan. One recent study by McKinsey & Co., for instance, estimates that 100 percent diffusion of LED lighting throughout Japan would cut power demand by the equivalent of seven nuclear reactors. In one global survey of energy efficiency, Japan still ranked fourth, behind the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. Just think if it ranked first.

To inspire Abe and some of his right-wing supporters to hit that goal, here’s a stirring example of innovation from World War II. In the 1930s, Japan lagged other industrial powers in aviation. Then a young engineer named Jiro Horikoshi working for Mitsubishi leapfrogged the competition by designing the Japanese navy's first monoplane fighter. (A gauzy, Vaseline-lensed version of Horikoshi and his aviation dreams is told lovingly by Hayao Miyazaki in "The Wind Rises," his latest, and perhaps last, film.) That led, in turn, to the creation of Japan's Zero fighter: Much to the shock of Western aviators, the Zero’s speed, range and maneuverability enabled it to rule the skies from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the first two years of Japan’s war with the U.S. But the rest, as much as Abe & Co. might wish to rewrite it, is history.

In the decades since the war, Japan has repeatedly demonstrated its technological genius, from Fujitsu supercomputers and Sony televisions to Nintendo consoles and Toyota hybrids. If it applied that creativity and drive to achieving sustainable, smart energy self-sufficiency, it could turn the disaster of Fukushima into a catalyst for global greatness, and all but win the future.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @jamesgibney.)

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James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

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