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.