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Outside View: Japan's energy conundrum
by Shihoko Goto
Washington (UPI) Dec 5, 2012


disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

When it comes to choices in Japanese politics, quantity has certainly given over to quality. After all, as voters face a barrage of campaign rhetoric from 12 political parties as they go to the polls Dec. 16, none of the parties have come up with a credible solution to the country's energy dilemma following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Yet Japan can ill-afford to continue the streak of having seven prime ministers in as many years, especially as it continues to grapple with the nuclear fallout on the one hand and endeavors to stop its foothold on the global economic ladder slipping even further.

For energy security in particular, time is running out for Japan to develop a longer-term strategy that can give it a good shot at remaining a competitive global power.

While public wariness regarding radiation rightly remains of grave concern, Japan cannot allow such fears to dictate its energy policy moving forward. Of course, the Fukushima disaster has been an opportunity for Japan to further its position as a world-class developer of renewable resources, and indeed, tax policies and corporate investments into solar and wind energy in particular post-3/11 have been widely lauded globally.

Still, while longer-term possibilities for alternative energy sources are bright, there is no doubt that Japan will have to depend on its nuclear power plants to meet its industrial needs in the near-term to remain an international economic force.

Firstly, reliance on petroleum to fuel its manufacturing basis will become increasingly costly and more fraught with political risk in the future. To date, Japan has been able to piggyback on U.S. commitment to ensure a steady supply of fossil fuels from the Middle East.

Continued U.S. need to pursue an aggressive policy in that region is up in the air, however, as hydraulic fracturing -- better known as fracking -- has made natural gas more plentiful within its own shores. Indeed, the United States could become energy independent as a result of the natural gas bonanza by 2020, some Washington analysts have said.

Invariably, U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports will decrease over the next few years, which will leave Japan and other Asian nations alone to protect the Strait of Hormuz, where more than one-third of the petroleum produced in the world passes, for their energy needs.

Secondly, while Japan mulls the possibility of partnering with Russia to tap into natural gas from Siberia, that strategy too is fraught with downside risks, not least the possibility of Moscow either withdrawing its supply for political gain or unduly ratcheting up prices for economic ones.

Russia's decision to cut off shipments via Ukraine in 2009 led European nations to scramble for alternative energy sources and that experience is likely to push Europeans to push forward with their own fracking projects to wean themselves off Russian gas.

Thirdly, Japan leads the world in nuclear technology and it is in the nation's interest to retain that position. By retreating from nuclear development, the know-how that has been nurtured over the decades would falter and would push world-class researchers and engineers in the field to work overseas. Already, Hitachi has been welcomed by British Prime Minister David Cameron himself as the United Kingdom looks to expand its nuclear power resources as Japan continues to redefine its energy strategy post-quake.

Following the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, the United States stopped building nuclear reactors and maintaining the 105 plants it currently has has depended heavily on technological knowledge from Japan as well as Europe.

Retreating from the industry altogether will be killing off a sector in which Japan has a clear advantage that is highly regarded worldwide. Japan has much to share not only in developing nuclear technology but also in coping with the public policy issues following a nuclear fall-out. It has a major role to play in sharing its post-Fukushima experiences with the international community, including radiation disaster relief.

The decision to continue Japanese commitment to nuclear power will not be a popular one but it is a necessary one nonetheless.

As Japanese voters head to the polls, they must assess who among those in the running can have the political foresight to develop a longer-term strategy that will meet the nation's future energy needs and decide which party can best lead Japan out of its anti-nuclear fervor based on radiation fears.

(Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar's Asia Program, in Washington. She is also a former business writer for United Press International.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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