Japan: Between Fossil Fuels and Nuclear

There’s a concept in energy policy making called the ‘Energy Trilemma’. It discuses the dilemma of having to choose between the three dimensions of security (secure physical supplies), equity (accessibility and affordability of energy), and environmental sustainability.

Japan is an excellent example of how difficult it can be to maximise the three. The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in 2011 (caused by a Tsunami that was caused by the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history) led policy makers to move away from nuclear energy in order to enhance the safety of the citizens of Japan.

But consider* this.

  • Deaths caused during the Fukushima nuclear accident due to direct radiation exposure: 0
  • Deaths due to the evacuation after the Fukushima nuclear accident: 600
  • Deaths expected to be caused in the long run due to radiation exposure from the Fukushima accident: ranging from 15 to 1300, with a “best guess” of 130
  • Deaths caused annually due to air pollution in Japan: over 10,000

While there is absolutely no doubt that even a single death caused due to externalities from energy consumption is one too many, the fact is that not enough attention is paid to air pollution deaths, when compared to nuclear radiation deaths.

It is for this reason that there is no outrage when the government decides to build 45 new coal fired power plants to plug the gap caused by the roll back of nuclear energy. This is in addition to the increase in use of natural gas after Fukushima.

Here’s an added angle: while natural gas pollutes half as much as coal, it is not in favour in Japan as its imports are far more expensive than coal is. And while renewables like solar and wind energy seem like good options, energy storage systems that are necessary to complement them are expensive.

Without a price on carbon (which I had written about here), coal will continue to be one of the cheapest forms of energy, and vehicles with internal combustion engines will continue to be more affordable than electric ones. When even international major oil companies including BP and Shell publicly call for carbon taxes, it’s perhaps time to take it seriously.


*Mortality is a crude way to look at safety. Nuclear radiation and air pollution can have other health impacts that do not necessarily lead to premature death, but diminishes the quality of life in other ways. None the less, since this is hard to measure, premature deaths are can be a useful proxy in determining health impacts.