Japan: Resilient Island, Amazing People

Japan: Resilient Island, Amazing People

Paul Sullivan | Professor, NDU. Georgetown NCUSAR
After the natural disasters in 2011, the country had the courage to get itself back on its feet and focus on economic development. The energy industry needed to be lifted and, to date, there are still shortcomings, mitigated by one single objective: diversification
Japan's #energyselfsufficiency dropped from about 16% prior to the disasters to about 6% after

Japan is an astonishing place on many levels. One of the most important exemplary sources of astonishment its energy, social, economic and human resilience in the face of the "Triple Disaster" of March 11, 2011. This is when a massive earthquake with many very large aftershocks not only shook the most eastern part of the country to its core, but also spurred massive tsunamis that destroyed much of the coastline of Fukushima and other nearby prefectures. The first two disasters were the earthquakes and the tsunamis. The third disaster on the same day was the nuclear meltdown and other events at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear facility. Most of the fatalities of these nightmarish events occurred from the destruction and drowning of the gigantic tsunami waves that rushed over sea walls and into cities, towns and villages as if the sea walls never existed. These tsunamis were like nothing the country has seen in its recent history, and few on the most effected coastlines were prepared. It was sad day for Japan that still reverberates in its culture and in the everyday lives of all Japanese.

The damages caused to nuclear power

These massive tsunamis also poured over the clearly inadequate sea walls at the Fukushima plant. The water rushed into and destroyed the backup generating system that pumped cooling water into the plants. It destroyed many of the fail safes of the plant. Even with the amazing courage of Japanese firefighters, police, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power, which ran the plant) workers and more the plant could not be saved. There were hydrogen explosions and other damage that ravaged the plant and sent radiation into the land, sea and air around to and, in some cases, far from the plant. As all of this is occurring many other nuclear plants automatically shut down. As the severity of the situation became clearer, and as the politics of nuclear power changed quickly in the country, all of the plants in Japan were eventually shut down in fairly quick order – and the country lost 30% of its electricity supply. This was a stunning loss of energy capacity and production for a modern, developed country that relied greatly on nuclear-powered electricity. Japan’s energy self-sufficiency dropped from about 16% prior to the disasters to about 6% after. Japan is one of the least energy self-sufficient countries on the planet. And for large, industrialized economies it is the least energy self-sufficient.

Consequences of an old-fashioned infrastructure network

Electricity transmission and distribution lines, some non-nuclear power plants, pipelines, roads and more were also seriously damaged. All of this made the energy situation even worse. What magnified the problems that resulted was that the electricity industry was separated into two frequency zones, one 50 hz (in the east) and one 60 hz (in the west), and the capacity to move electricity from the western interconnections was tiny in comparison to the losses of electricity production from the eastern interconnection as the Triple Disaster worked its deadly and destructive forces.
Adding even further to the woes of the country’s energy supplies was the fact that almost all of the electricity production in the country was separated into utility zones, which were controlled by near and some total monopolies with fairly modest energy trading across their zones. The "old boy" network that allowed many of these companies to not sufficiently prepare for the worst, including revolving doors between the nuclear regulatory agencies and their regional "monopolies". The incentives and soft infrastructure related to the industry allowed a dangerous complacency to set in.

They are well on the way to reforming and rationalizing the electricity system. They also have changed the regulatory apparatus for nuclear power into something that will better allows planning and proper incentives. The nuclear industry has poured massive amounts of money, among other things, into building tsunami walls

The strength of the people of Japan

However, soon after the Triple Disaster the Japanese government, industry and people went into resilience and reparation mode. Mothballed fossil fuel plants were restarted. Repairs were made to electricity infrastructure such as transmission pylons and lines as well as transformer, switching and other stations that were damages. Damage to energy storage facilities and ports were also a focus of repair. Roads, which are vital for some energy transport in a mountainous country like Japan, were also fairly quickly repaired. This was a massive effort that could take many books to explain – and to admire – yet, as with any such series of events not all went perfectly to plan. That is normal.
Immediate load shedding occurred in the country after the events. Many industries complied immediately. The automotive and other energy-intensive industries had to adjust to sometimes stunning ups and downs of electricity supply for some time.
Japan’s economy got hit hard by a real estate-financial crisis in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Its GDP growth rates plummeted in those years. Japan’s GDP has fairly stagnant since. It was hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, pushing its GDP deeply into negative growth territory. The Triple Disaster also hammered Japan’s GDP growth rates into negative ranges, but not as much as the 2008 recession or even some lesser events in the 1990s. The effects of the Triple Disaster on the Japanese economy could have been much worse if not for the cooperative and resilient nature of the Japanese people.
The reactions of the Japanese people to requests by their government to cut back on energy use were astonishing. They actually, in many places, cut back their energy use more than requested by turning up temperatures on air conditioners (Japan was heading soon into Summer after the events), using lifts less and stairs more, turning off lights more effectively, and many of the seemingly small things that can add up to big energy demand changes. Industry and government also cut back on their energy use. The Japanese knew their country was in trouble and they tightened their energy belts and soldiered on in very difficult circumstances.

Working towards energy diversification

All of the great repair and resilience efforts in the short to medium run responses to the tragic events were great, but Japan needs to figure out some long-term policies, plans and investments to ensure energy security in the future. They will need to figure out what the best mix of energy sources, means and methods will give that that security.
They are well on the way to reforming and rationalizing the electricity system. They also have changed the regulatory apparatus for nuclear power into something that will better allows planning and proper incentives. The nuclear industry has poured massive amounts of money into building tsunami walls, waterproofing, and various safety and backup facilities and plans on their plant grounds and elsewhere. A very few of the nuclear plants have been restarted. The debate on starting others still rages. There are huge differences in views on nuclear power depending on where a person lives and Japan and how they may have been effected by the tragic events.
Japan has huge geothermal energy resources, but the politics of the onsen (hot springs) and national parks seems to rule using most of this. Japan has focused more on solar and wind power after the 2011, but has a long way to go. Many mega-solar plants have been built and are in the works. Wind farms are sprouting up. But it is still the case that most of their energy sources are from fossil fuels, and almost all of that is imported. Japan has almost no fossil fuels in the ground. Non-hydro renewables are around 3% of its energy supply. Hydro is about 5%. Nuclear is now just 1%. Petroleum and other liquid fuels are a whopping 42% of Japan’s energy use, and they rely about 82% on the Middle East for their petroleum, and 81.4% on the Straits of Hormuz for transport of that petroleum. The Japanese are looking at North America, and especially the US, to diversify its oil imports. They are also engaged in oil and oil related investments throughout the world to diversify their oil sources. However, Japan is regularly one of the top 3-4 oil importers in the world. Japan is the world’s largest importer of LNG. Natural gas is about 23% of their energy use, yet for this they rely just 26.5% on the Middle East, and 23.6% on Hormuz. The Japanese are looking to diversify natural gas sources even further. The new and prospective LNG export capacities from Australia and the US could make a big positive difference in this. Japanese companies have invested in the LNG and other natural gas capacities in both of those countries. They also rely a lot on Malaysia, but Malaysian LNG may not be as prevalent as it is now in the long term given the likely increasing needs for natural gas by Malaysia. Russia is an increasing source of natural gas for Japan, but there are political issues there that may push them to relay more on other sources in the future. Japan is at times the largest coal importer in the world. Coal is about 27% of Japan’s energy demand, and most of that comes from Australia and Indonesia, with Russia being number 3. Again, Japan has only tiny coal, oil and gas resources of its own in comparison with its demands.

The increased demand for fossil fuels by Japan after the Triple Disaster had big effects on the prices of LNG in the Pacific Basin markets, and global coal and oil markets, as Japan began to replace nuclear electricity generation with gas, coal and oil generation.

Life as a net energy importer

As the nuclear plants shut down Japan went from being an overall net exporter to a net importer for its economy very quickly. The increased demand for fossil fuels by Japan after the Triple Disaster had big effects on the prices of LNG in the Pacific Basin markets, and global coal and oil markets, as Japan began to replace nuclear electricity generation with gas, coal and oil generation. As oil, coal and LNG prices increased over the next few years after the events Japan’s fuel import bill also increased--drastically. As theses prices fell, especially after 2014 for oil and LNG (Japan’s LNG import prices were linked with oil prices as well as general market effect) and 2011 for coal Japan began to claw back some of its trade deficit and even headed into a trade surplus with the precipitous falls in fuel prices.
Japan is starting to develop what they call their hydrogen economy. This is on its fairly basic stages now, but they want to move this forward significantly by the 2020 Olympics. Japan is also looking into the methane hydrates to be found in the deep oceans near to it. It is also exploring possibilities of other fossil fuels in its nearby ocean. More problematic for Japan in the future could be the sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) through which much of its fuels, and they import almost all of their fossil fuels, travel. As China builds up islands and establishes bases in the East China Sea and South China Sea Japan gets warier of why they are doing this. The oil from the Middle East has to go via the Malacca and also through very important channels in Southeast Asia and all the way to ports in japan. Another aspect of energy security that may need to be dealt with in Japan is how these fuel import ports are set up. Oil, gas, and coal facilities are often placed very close to each other in these ports – and that is a problem for energy security in many ways. Geographic tightness of energy facilities leads to less physical energy security at times.
Japan’s declining population may alleviate some of its future energy security issues. However, it’s aging society needs energy reliability for reasons of health, lifestyle and human security. Increases in the use of robots and artificial intelligence as part of the fourth industrial revolution will have industry and services – and even government – needing less people, but that likely will mean these sectors and others will need more energy, and most particularly electricity.
Then there are the distinct and seemingly increasing probabilities of another major earthquake, especially emanating from the Nankai Trough off the southern shores of Japan’s Honshu Island, near to major industrial and energy generation, transmission and transportation areas. We can hope and pray for Japan that they will be prepared for future emergencies and natural disasters. They are a resilient people and many are thinking about and planning for the next one. In the meantime, it is amazing how normal and productive Japan is in the face of past and potentially future disasters. Yes, the Japanese are an amazing people.


*All opinions are Dr. Sullivan’s alone.