Energy is the "life blood" of any economy, but for Japan, this truism has an added importance. Japan is poor in natural resources, specifically sources of energy, which are so vital to a healthy, modern economy:
- Japan must import over 80% of all primary energy needs;
- Japan obtains only 0.3% of its crude oil supply from domestic sources;
- Japan has very few domestic sources of coal, natural gas, or uranium.
The two oil crises of the 1970s proved that reliance on one particular energy source could greatly undermine stability with regard to energy supplies. The Japanese government sees nuclear power therefore as the most appropriate solution. Nuclear energy is also particularly attractive to Japan because it is environmentally friendly. Contrary to coal, natural gas, and oil-fired generators, nuclear plants produce no harmful emissions. Japan considers nuclear power an important fuel due to its stable supply and potential to alleviate environmental problems like global warming and acid rain.
Because of the dependency, energy security is an extremely important issue for resource-poor Japan. Nearly 90 percent of total crude oil supplies come from the Middle East. Nuclear power makes a great contribution to energy security by producing the equivalent of approximately 465 million barrels of oil per year, which corresponds to about 30 percent of annual crude oil imports. Further energy security is supported by the domestic nuclear fuel cycle in which unburned uranium and plutonium are recovered through spent fuel reprocessing to conserve uranium resources. The Japanese government has long held that the establishment of nuclear fuel recycling offers the best prospect of long-term energy security. According to the World Nuclear Association Japan started its nuclear research program in 1954, with 230 million being budgeted for nuclear energy. The Atomic Energy Basic Law, which strictly limits the use of nuclear technology to peaceful purposes, was introduced in 1955. The law aims to ensure that three principles - democratic methods, independent management, and transparency - are the basis of nuclear research activities, as well as promoting international co-operation. Inauguration of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1956 promoted nuclear power development and utilisation. As early as its first long-term plan 1956-1960, the Japanese Science and Technology Agency and the Atomic Energy Commission stated that Japan’s final goal is the implementation of fast breeder nuclear reactors which would eventually provide Japan with an independent indigenous fuel cycle.
The main goals regarding nuclear power are:
- to continue to have nuclear power as a major element of electricity production;
- to recycle uranium and plutonium from used fuel and have reprocessing domestically from 2005;
- steadily to develop fast breeder reactors in order to improve uranium utilisation dramatically;
- to promote nuclear energy to the public, emphasising safety and non-proliferation.
With 55 currently operating commercial nuclear power plants that supply about a third of Japan's electricity needs, Japan's nuclear industry is helping to ensure the long-term strength and viability of the country's economy.
The Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) within the Ministry of Economy Trade & Industry is responsible for nuclear power regulation, licensing and safety. It conducts regular inspections of safety-related aspects of all power plants. The NISA is responsible for the safety of test and research reactors, nuclear fuel facilities and radioactive waste management, as well as Research & Development. Because of the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes in Japan, particular attention is paid to seismic issues in the design and construction of nuclear power plants. In May 2007 revised seismic criteria were announced which increased the design basis criteria and required utilities to undertake some reinforcement of older plants.
The Japanese people have a historic deep-seated anti-nuclear sentiment based on the experience of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent suffering of their citizens. More than 170.000 people died as an immediate result followed by tens of thousands suffering and dying from radiation sickness and other related illnesses. While there is cautious acceptance of the need for nuclear power, the public opinion suggest a deep-seated aversion to nuclear weapons and strong support for their eventual elimination. Because of this public attitude policy makers have implemented a policy on non-proliferation. Japan’s basic Atomic Energy Law prohibits the military use of nuclear energy and successive governments have articulated principles reinforcing this. In 1976 Japan became a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with its safeguards arrangements administered by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These safeguards are designed to ensure that nuclear materials for peaceful purposes are not diverted for military use. In 1999 Japan was one of the first countries to ratify the Additional Protocol with IAEA, accepting intrusive inspections.