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3.11 and Japan’s Shift to Smart, Distributed Power

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 159-164 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0004

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Richard Samuels’s book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan is, to date, the most authoritative English-language study of the impact of history’s costliest natural and man-made disasters on Japan’s political economy of energy and the implications for intergovernmental relations. The book uses a narrative approach, deftly outlining the institutional terrain prior to 3.11 and presenting the key actors and core arguments for a return to business as usual versus alternatives advanced by reformists. Samuels maps Japan’s fights over energy and regional governance, providing a valuable resource for examining those linked conflicts in the larger context of accelerating global paradigm shifts in energy and the character of the city regions that consume the vast majority of it. In Japan, as is true elsewhere, energy is the fundamental economic sector. For decades predictable and taken for granted, energy is suddenly dynamic, with disruptive change being spurred in particular by communities’ search for resilience and sustainability in the face of multiple crises.

Samuels’s considerable background in research and writing on Japanese energy and local government left him better prepared than most concerning what to pay attention to in the confusion following 3.11. He neither takes sides nor picks winners, save in betting on expanding opportunities for the local governments who star in his account (p. 197). This detachment allows Samuels to explicate the broad range of interests wanting to rebuild the disrupted status quo ante as well as the challengers who swiftly rose to prominence amid the chaos.

His analysis shows us that prior to 3.11 Japanese energy policymaking was dominated by a “nuclear village” centered on the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI); the utilities; the nuclear industry; cooperative political, business, media, and academic elites; and advocates in the communities hosting nuclear plants. Japan’s power economy—the world’s third-largest—featured the most profound monopolization of any developed country, not just in terms of generation and transmission assets, along with the rules governing them, but also via dense and dangerously complacent political and business alliances in the national capital and throughout the country. Compact and powerfully incentivized, the nuclear village had seized control over fiscal, regulatory, and other resources and had driven a nuclear energy paradigm into the core of Japanese policymaking. The dominant discourse, inscribed in energy, environmental, and economic-growth policy, depicted nuclear power as the cheapest, most reliable, and most realistic option, declaring it also to be completely safe as well as the bedrock of energy security. Prior to 3.11, Japan’s nuclear program was thus set to expand from under a third of electrical power production to reach over half of the nation’s power generation by 2030. In a country with scarce conventional energy resource endowments, oceans away from increasingly precarious and expensive fossil-fuel supplies, the government-backed nuclear paradigm possessed immense resources, credibility, and political momentum, enabling it to obfuscate a startling record of accidents, cover-ups, cost overruns, and other scandals.

Samuels details how the shock of 3.11 shattered this structure of interests and its commanding narrative, delivering a particularly large blow to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the world’s largest private utility. The nuclear village continues to be eroded by public opposition to its vision, the already monumental and still-mounting costs of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns, and the spread of renewable and efficiency alternatives among local governments, households, businesses, and other rapidly multiplying “prosumers” (producers and consumers) of energy. Even the subsequent return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), headed by an explicitly pro-nuclear prime minister, has yet to contain this momentum for an energy shift. Samuels’s account is thus invaluable for understanding much of what is at stake in Japan’s post-crisis clash between centralized and distributed power (or more generally, distributed energy resources).

While Samuels scrupulously avoids taking sides, his work illustrates how the “creative destruction,” so to speak, of 3.11 has given Japan a chance to be a leader in the global transition from centralized to distributed power. He sketches the quick defections from the core of the nuclear village as firms such as Toshiba, Hitachi...

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