The geopolitical impact of the Fukushima nuclear incident I: The Nuclear Renaissance

Peace & Security29 Mar 2011Alex Calvo

Reporting on the trouble at Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear facilities initially focused on the possibility of a meltdown, and has later concentrated on the repair works being conducted and the small radioactivity leaks which have taken place.

It is too early to know the extent of the damage at the nuclear facilities in Fukushima Daiichi, and the impact on human health and the wider environment. While we eagerly await news on these fronts, however, we can start examining some of the wider geopolitical issues that are likely to be affected by the incident,.

Among others, the three following areas are likely to suffer under the impact of the Fukushima crisis:

  1. The so-called ‘Nuclear Renaissance’
  2. The competition between the Japanese and the South Korean nuclear industry
  3. The relations between Tokyo and Central Asia.

The Nuclear Renaissance

Japan is a world leader in the nuclear arena, having decided decades ago that only atomic power could provide a measure of energy security and self-sufficiency in the face of the country’s almost complete lack of domestic sources of energy. Together with Russia and the United States, Japan is a leader in this field. Countries such as France also reached similar conclusions. However, a number of factors led to a worldwide halt in the construction of new reactors in the late 70s and 80s.

The Three Mile Island incident, followed by the much worse case of Chernobyl, the unending controversy over spent fuel, and the realization that, although cheap to operate, nuclear reactors were much more expensive to build than originally imagined, have brought the nuclear industry to a halt, with very few new reactors built or even planned.

Yet this situation has changed in the past few years. An increasing number of countries gradually realized once again that nuclear power is one of the few ways to avoid an excessive reliance on oil, a sizeable portion of which comes from unstable regions of the planet such as the Persian Gulf. This fact, together with the notion that Chernobyl told us more about Soviet safety standards than any inherent danger posed by nuclear plants, led to new plans to build nuclear power stations. Hence, the dawning of the ‘Nuclear Renaissance’.

Participants in this trend have included a number of Asian nations such as India or Vietnam. Western Europe was cooler to the idea (although Italy planned a referendum on the matter) but the United States jumped on board, and countries such as South Africa, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates were also interested.

Renaissance revisited?

Although, as said, it is still too early to tell what the impact of the Fukushima incident will be, a cooling of popular and elite attitudes towards nuclear energy is already clear. A successful resolution of the crisis, avoiding a major radioactivity leak, could of course help dampen this. The geological risk factors present in Japan are unique to that country and can be avoided elsewhere by a more careful selection of nuclear facilities sites. However, it is likely that opposition to nuclear energy will grow.

Some governments have already scaled down their plans. Beijing has announced a moratorium on the building of new nuclear power stations pending a safety review, and Germany has decided to close some of its older reactors.

Japan’s nuclear export

In Japan, popular opposition to nuclear energy has also been traditionally strong, Such opposition, together with a certain saturation of the number of facilities (Japan has 53 nuclear power stations), and the general economic stagnation afflicting the country after the burst of the ‘Bubble’ in 1991, has led the Japanese nuclear industry to look abroad for growth. Export does not only provide interesting opportunities in a difficult economic climate but also helps Japanese diplomacy consolidate a number of crucial bilateral relations, above all with Asian countries worried about excessive reliance on China.

A key driver behind Japanese exports is the technologically advanced nature of its nuclear industry, which includes a number of proprietary technologies not available to competitors.


An example of a country welcoming Japanese participation in its plans to develop a nuclear industry is Vietnam. Tokyo and Hanoi reached an agreement in October last year whereby Japanese firms would build two nuclear power stations in the southeastern province of Ninh Thuan. Scheduled to start operating in 2021, their combined output will be 2 gigawatts.

Hanoi, which plans to have 14 working nuclear reactors by 2030, is careful to avoid relying too much on its giant northern neighbour China. Although sharing a communist political system, Vietnam, which has historically fought hard to avoid being absorbed into China, is engaged in an intense struggle with Beijing over the South China Sea. Its waters are claimed by China but this is contested by the remaining littoral states, with increasingly vocal support from Washington.

Vietnam, whose population, economy and armed forces are no match for China’s, is relying on rapid economic modernization, the acquisition of advanced weaponry (the country was Russia’s top arms customer in 2009), and a web of relations with other powers to resist Chinese encroachment. Three countries play a key role in these efforts at building a multivectorial diplomacy: Russia, whose industry will build another two nuclear power stations in Ninh Thuan; the United States, with memories of the war fast giving way to a renewed emphasis on common interests and Japan.

Tokyo is a useful counterbalance for countries such as Vietnam – or Mongolia to give another example. Importantly not sharing a border, Japan is a technologically and economically advanced country that is willing to invest and engage in trade.

This does not of course mean either power is willing to directly confront China, and be seen as part of an anti-Beijing alliance, but simply that they want to make sure they diversify foreign relations so that the Chinese influence, while welcomed, is kept at a manageable level.

Although it is not only nuclear industry that adds momentum to relations between Vietnam and Mongolia with Japan, a slowing down of the ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ would certainly put a dent in bilateral ties.