Japan’s energy dilemma, in one chart

Before the Fukushima disaster happened three years ago today, nuclear power met 31 percent of Japan’s energy-generation needs. Since then, the country shut down all its reactors, to the point where nuclear energy provided only 1 percent of Japan’s power last year.

The chart below, based on data from the Japan Institute of Energy Economics, shows how Japan has managed to keep the lights on since 2011: significant increases in oil and natural gas consumption, and to a lesser extent, coal. Since Japan has few natural resources of its own, most of this energy has to be imported from elsewhere.

japan energy use

The Abe administration recently released a draft energy plan calling for a long-term return to nuclear power – a stark turnaround from his predecessor, who had pledged a complete phaseout of all nuclear plants by the 2030s. While a majority of Japanese oppose nuclear power, the economy remains a bigger concern. Keeping 48 nuclear reactors idle is wreaking havoc with the country’s electric utilities and causing energy prices to rise – natural gas prices were up 17 percent last year. Moreover, the country recently posted a record deficit combined with disappointing growth figures.

Hence, Abe’s dilemma: Is it better to return to nuclear power and risk angering a public leery of further catastrophe? Or should he continue to chart the current course and face strong energy headwinds for the foreseeable future? Based on the recent draft energy report, the administration appears to be leaning toward the former.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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Steven Mufson · March 11, 2014

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