The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Japan in Jeopardy? Managing Energy Vulnerabilities Amidst Disaster Response

Japan’s recent earthquake – and the tsunami that followed it – is the strongest on record and has been dubbed to be Japan’s worse crisis since the Second World War. As the country grapples with the ensuing threat of multiple nuclear meltdowns after explosions at 3 Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) reactors in Fukushima, questions are being raised as to the extent of the nuclear crises at hand. As it stands, the death toll is estimated to surpass 10,000 while almost 2 million households are without power supply and 1.4 million are without running water in the colder Northern regions of Japan. Moreover, Japan’s aging population also indicates higher vulnerabilities for a substantial proportion of Japanese society in terms of health and safety.

This situation is likely to get worse with the government’s announcement of starting rolling blackouts in a bid to conserve energy – energy that would be needed to maintain the cooling systems in Japan’s NPPs to avoid nuclear meltdowns. The lack of clean water not only severely impacts public health and sanitation, but is also critical for cooling the nuclear reactors. The blackouts would also affect economic livelihoods as stalled economic activity in the industrial sector would exacerbate an already ailing Japanese economy, let alone the massive costs of damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

On hindsight, more could have been done prior to the earthquake. For instance, it was barely 5 years ago, when the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP experienced a fire and leak as a result of an earthquake measuring 6.8 in magnitude. This was partly because most NPPs in Japan have been designed to withstand earthquakes up to 6.5 in magnitude, hence little improvement has been made to fortify these NPPs since.

A possible reason for the license extension is that 30% of Japan’s energy supply is generated from nuclear energy. While some may be quick to criticise Japan’s substantial dependence on nuclear energy, it is also important to realise that nuclear energy – a clean source of energy – was an attempt to diversify Japan’s energy mix and reduce Japan’s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East that are sold at a higher premium for Asian countries.

Although Japan is Asia’s best example for disaster preparedness and technological advancements for nuclear energy, it is high time to review the processes. The current situation in Japan has even caused policymakers in the US, Switzerland and India to delay future nuclear energy plans. In Southeast Asia, where the demand for energy sources for development is increasingly insatiable, it is vital that ASEAN countries take environmental impact assessments seriously and acknowledge the importance of further enhancing their disaster capabilities to respond to potentially complex emergencies. With the increasing unpredictability and intensity of natural disasters, achieving Japan’s preparedness capabilities is only the very basic benchmark for the less developed East Asian countries if they wish to go nuclear.

This blog is an abridged version of a commentary by Sofiah Jamil and Assoc. Prof Mely Caballero-Anthony.
Click here to read the full version.


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