Does the Shadow of Fukushima Threaten Japan's Electric Car Future?

Japan has been one of the world’s leading hybrid vehicle markets for as long as there have been hybrids on the road. So far this year, hybrids have made up more than one fifth of all vehicles sold in the country, and the Toyota Prius has long ranked among the best-selling vehicles there. So with the Japanese at the forefront of the fuel efficiency curve, one would think that electric vehicles have a bright future in Japan. After all, one of the most enthusiastic flag carriers for plug-ins among the world’s major automakers has been Nissan, which is also one of Japan’s biggest companies.

But according to a recent Associated Press article, many in Japan are so concerned with the predominance of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix that electric vehicles may come to be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution.

The article quotes Ryuichi Kino, a reporter covering environmental issues in Japan, who says that concerns over nuclear safety have grown to potentially leave an indelible mark on the reputation of electric cars in the country. So long as nuclear is the main source of electricity in Japan “the green image of the electric car will get bashed to bits, maybe to the extent it will be irreparable,” said Kino. “I have the feeling it’s quite possible that might happen.”

Real world plug-in vehicle emissions can vary pretty widely depending upon the energy sources used to create the electricity powers them. Still, most experts agree that under nearly every energy mix scenario, driving electric is significantly cleaner than gas-fueled transportation.

Fears over nuclear power stem not from emissions but rather from the potential for another Fukushima-style disaster, which despite leaving a miles-wide area around the plant uninhabitable (perhaps for decades,) could have been even worse. A recent report in The New York Times suggests that at one point during the disaster, the Japanese government secretly considered an evacuation of Tokyo, fearing the potential for a much larger crisis.

Nuclear safety isn’t just a concern in Japan. Polling conducted last year in Europe showed citizens in Britain, France and Germany becoming increasing opposed to nuclear energy. In the United States, where nukes make up less than 20 percent of the energy balance, resistance has grown in several states―particularly California, which is also among the world’s leading epicenters of early electric vehicle deployment.

Plug-in advocates are quick to point out that use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power will grow worldwide in the coming decades, and electric cars will continue to get cleaner and cleaner. Gasoline meanwhile will only get dirtier and riskier, as producers struggle to collect it from increasingly difficult-to-develop reserves.


  • James Davis

    I cannot see electric cars ever disappearing in Japan, but I can see nuclear power quickly disappearing, and that would be the smart thing. Nissan is equipping their electric cars so if there is a power outage the person can plug their electric car into the house and use the power of the battery to stay warm and cook food.

    Japan is a far cry from being stupid, they know that they are a powerhouse for geothermal and solar…either one of those would give Japan a clean safe never ending source of electricity and solar can charge the car battery doing the day time. There is also the nuclear battery that will be out in less time it takes to build a new source of energy to replace nuclear. That is a supercharge Thorium battery and it will keep your car running for years and your house equal amount of time. The fossil age is over and I think Japan will quickly and happily embrace the electric age.

  • perfectapproach

    The problem with nuclear energy is not how dangerous it is. Using fossil-fueled power plants for electrical power are also quite dangerous – they are incredibly flammable.

    The difference is that we have overcome the challenges associated with using fossil fuels for electrical energy. We have made them less dangerous with technology and policies that prevent accidents – accidents that could cause massive explosions and could potentially incinerate large areas of land.

    I say “potentially” even though it is a very long shot… just as long a shot as a massive earthquake hitting a fossil-fueled power plant. Which is exactly what happened to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. An incredibly rare series of circumstances culminated in a very unfortunate, but still very unlikely, occurrence.

    Not that nuclear accidents aren’t more damaging than fossil fuel accidents. They certainly are. But, the problem is not in the type of fuel; the problem is in how it is handled/controlled.

    The simple truth is that if the Fukushima plant had followed the construction plan correctly and had taken action on later recommendations, the Fukushima plant would be operational now and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The personnel at the Fukushima plant failed to follow procedure, and THIS is what caused the Fukushima accident. Not the type of fuel.

    Nuclear energy can be as safe as any other energy type, as long as proper policies and procedures are followed. But the people running the Fukushima plant did not do that. THEY caused the accident, not the fuel.

  • Van

    First, it seems a reporter has created a controversy where none exists. Second, nuclear power could be part of our energy mix, along with renewables, but we need to make sure that they are single failure proof, i.e. able to operate if a wave, down poor, or other cause floods the plant location. The lack of mobile (air lift-able)
    emergency electrical supply and pumping capacity to keep the fuel, whether in the reactor vessel or in the spent fuel pool, caused the problem.

    I do not know why the sea wall was too short to protect the plant, or why there was no workable plan to bring in power, water and pumping ability within a day or two, but these questions need to be answered.

    Unlike Japan, electricity generation can come from several domestic sources, wind, solar, hydro, natural gas, coal, oil, geo-thermal and nuclear.

    And it does not take a MIT guy to know we need our transportation system to run of domestic energy that does not pollute the air we breath. Plug-in hybrids are the way forward, and sufficient electrical generation facilities that are safe and do not pollute are too.

  • AP

    Fukushima is a plant built 40 years ago with now-obselete design, and built in a “tsunami zone.”

    We shouldn’t judge nuclear power by this plant, any more than we should judge electric cars by 40-year old electric cars.

    We should be using a lot more nuclear power, because of its negligible CO2 emissions, reliability, low fuel cost, and (yes) enviable safety record.

  • jones22

    There is definitely so many things that have changed with all of this. So much will have to change in the future for this. You just have to take it day by day here. The future is very unstable here. Wonderful career advice

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