Nuclear Costs: How Nuclear Decisions are Based on Money and what that Costs Us

Dr. Robert Jacobs

Dr. Robert Jacobs,

Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

Prof Jacobs can be contacted at,, and

Almost all parts of Japanese (and that of every nation’s) nuclear policy are governed by one overarching principle: money. Cost saving practices exacerbated the Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdowns, money defines almost every aspect of policy towards those affected by the nuclear disaster, money dictates that the idled reactors must be restarted, and money is the reason Japanese nuclear exports have hit high gear in places like Vietnam and India.

The nuclear industry in Japan has been virtually unregulated since its beginnings. This lack of vigorous regulation allowed TEPCO to cut corners and avoid costly repairs and upgrades. Many of these short cuts facilitated or exacerbated the problems at Fukushima Daiichi when it was struck by such a huge earthquake and tsunami. The very fact that a hillside was leveled so that reactors 1 through 4 could be put right beside the sea to ease the cost of accessing water for cooling purposes reveals the priority of lowering costs over public safety.

When considering the evacuation policies of the Japanese government in the areas near to the plant, again one can see money as the chief guiding principle. Since the early days of the crisis, the mandatory evacuation zone (20km) has differed from the suggested evacuation zone (30km). Why the difference? When you force someone to evacuate you are then financially liable for issuing that order. If you suggest that people evacuate you incur no financial cost, the burden is placed on the citizen. If they evacuate they must do so with their own funds, and if they don’t you are absolved from blame since you advised them it would be a wise course of action. The evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi area is smaller than the zone around Chernobyl and the number of people evacuated, at state cost, is far smaller in Japan.

A parallel logic can be extended to decisions to leave children living in areas where the plumes deposited significant radiation in other parts of Fukushima Prefecture. Many children attend schools that have been, at least partially, decontaminated, but the adjacent parks and woods retain dangerous levels of radiation. There are two ways that the presence of levels of radiation than mandate excluding children from parts of their community can result in costs to the state. First, the state could evacuate their families, which would cost a lot of money since homes and businesses would need to be compensated for, and new homes would need to be provided. This would cost a lot of money up front, right now. The second way would be to allow the children to be exposed to the higher levels of radiation, aware that this will incur costs later as medical costs and disability costs. This policy would spread the fiscal burden across several decades, would be far less noticeable and disruptive to the larger society, and would happen when current office holders have retired.

The decision to restart the nuclear plants in Japan is also based on cost. Even though it has been almost three years since Japan lost the capacity of the nuclear power plants through idling the plants, and the economy has not been damaged to the level predicted by industry, governmental and academic economists; the reasons that the government wants to restart the reactors is based in other considerations. The value of most of the electrical companies in Japan is predicated on the nuclear power plants that they own, having value. There has already been the expenditure to build these plants, and if their value is zero, these companies will loose value on the market. The thought is that if they lose their value it will weaken the markets in Japan as a whole. Added to age old fears that, as a country poor in fossil fuels, Japan is dependent on importing fuel (ignoring the possibilities of renewable fuels in the process) Japanese security and the long term welfare of the Japanese economy (held up by corporations like Toyota) will weaken. Therefore it is logical to restart the existing nuclear reactors, even if they pose a public danger, or the potential for long-term costs associated with additional meltdowns.

And this leads us to the ramped up program to export nuclear technologies to developing countries such as Vietnam and India. Since the economy of Japan’s nuclear industry has collapsed, and the likelihood of long-term profitability appears dim, a priority for the Japanese government is to bring in revenues through exporting this technology to places where public opposition has not been hardened through disaster, yet. Increasing revenues for the Japanese nuclear industry is seen as a necessity by the Japanese government, and since it is appearing increasingly contentious to restore those revenues inside of Japan, this money must come from abroad. The dangers of nuclear power, and the costs, both financial and human, of nuclear disaster don’t enter into this calculation.

Fortunately the Vietnamese government has cautiously stepped back from entering into such a risky deal. We can only hope that the government of India similarly reassesses the costs and benefits of investing in Japanese, or any nation’s nuclear export industry.

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