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Dear EarthTalk: Were Japan to close all its nuclear plants following the recent damage and radiation leaks from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, what could its energy mix look like? Would it be able to provide all of its power in other ways?        

 Richard Miller, New York, NY

Most experts agree that Japan would be hard pressed to close all of its 54 nuclear reactors anytime soon, especially given that these plants provide over a third of the nation’s electricity supply and 11 percent of its total energy needs. Japan relies so much on nuclear power because it has so few other domestic sources of energy to draw upon. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Japan is only 16 percent energy self-sufficient, and much of this comes from its now-wounded nuclear power program.

Despite producing only trifling amounts of oil domestically from fields off its west coast, Japan is the third largest oil consumer in the world behind the U.S. and China, as well as the third largest net importer of crude oil. Imported oil accounts for some 45 percent of Japan’s energy needs. Besides bringing in a lot of oil, Japan is the world’s largest importer of both coal and liquefied natural gas. Against this backdrop of imported fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that Japan has embraced nuclear power; worldwide, only the U.S. and France produce more nuclear energy.

Factoring in that it would take decades to ramp up capacity on alternative renewable energy sources — right now hydropower accounts for three percent of Japanese energy usage and other renewable sources like solar and wind only one percent — and that Japan must import just about all its fossil fuels, it becomes obvious that the country will need to rely on nuclear power for some time to come, despite the risks.

"Supplying the same amount of electricity by oil, for example, would increase oil imports by about 62 million metric tons per year, or about 1.25 million barrels per day," says Toufiq Siddiqi, a researcher with the nonprofit East-West Institute. He adds that at the current price of oil per barrel (roughly $100), switching out nuclear for oil would cost Japan upwards of $46 billion per year. "Further, it would take almost a decade to build enough new oil, coal or natural gas-fired power plants to provide the equivalent amount of electricity, and tens of billions of dollars per year would be required to do so," he concludes.

In the short term, the easiest way for Japan to make up for its reduced nuclear output is by importing more natural gas and other fossil fuels, sending its carbon footprint in the wrong direction. What’s less clear is whether Japanese policymakers’ pre-existing plans to increase the country’s nuclear capacity — the stated goal is to generate half of Japan’s electricity via nuclear power within two decades as part of a larger effort to trim carbon dioxide emissions — will still be followed following the Fukushima accidents.

A Greenpeace vigil for Japan in front of the White House in Washington, DC.
Photo: Joe Newman/Flickr

The Fukushima plant failures are likely to impact the always evolving energy mix worldwide as well, not just within Japan. Many analysts expect the nuclear disaster in Japan to cause a shift toward the increased use of natural gas worldwide. Of course, the downside for the environment is that natural gas is a fossil fuel and its use contributes significantly to global warming. While solar and wind power can take up some of the slack, these and other renewables are at least decades away from the scalability needed to power a significant share of a modern industrial society’s energy requirements.

CONTACTS: U.S. Department of Energy,; East-West Institute,

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BOOK TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
By Richard A. Muller

Paperback: 384 pages
W. W. Norton & Company (September 2009)
ISBN-10: 0393337111
ISBN-13: 978-0393337112

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