Japan Heading for Energy Death Spiral?

photo credit:  Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

Nobuo Tanaka's hair is on fire.  The immediate past executive director of the International Energy Agency is on a mission attempting to alert officials in the United States, Japan, Europe, China and elsewhere that post-Fukushima Japan may be approaching an energy death spiral.

Tanaka's argument is mathematical at its core.  He argues that if Japan does not find a way to 'turn on' its now shuttered nuclear energy reactors, not only will Japan's already sluggish economic condition be crushed with much larger oil and gas imports from Russia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East -- but because of the costs and risk uncertainty -- Japan's powerful manufacturing base may begin pulling out of the world's third largest economy.  In a morning meeting with me last week, Nobuo Tanaka said that if Japan didn't get its domestic energy production back on line soon, Japan would experience serious 'deindustrialization.'

tanaka 1.jpgTanaka explained that at current levels, Japan consumes about 5 million barrels of oil a day.  Without domestically produced nuclear energy -- for which Japan has stockpiled for decades the world's largest non-weaponized highly processed plutonium reserves -- Japan falls about 10% or half a million barrels of oil short of what it must have. 

Japan has 54 nuclear energy reactors -- only two of which are running at the moment and both of which are scheduled for regular check ups and will shut down either late this month or in early May 2012.  As regular maintenance has required shutting down plant after plant, none of Japan's governors has allowed the nuclear energy plants to be returned to operation.

On top of the post-Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, global tensions with Iran are threatening Japan's dependence on Iranian oil exports, which Japan's share amounts to about 300,000 barrels a day. 

This makes Japan's current potential daily energy deficit about 800,000 barrels per day. 

Tanaka, who after leaving the International Energy Agency is biding his time now as Global Associate for Energy Security and Sustainability at Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, acknowledges that the Saudis have offered Japan, Europe and others who are jittery about the growing tensions with Iran more of its own domestic capacity, which most put at about 2 million barrels a day.  Tanaka says the problem is that that's just not enough to manage global shortfalls if there is a strike on Iran and oil flows are interrupted -- and he believes that the Saudis will favor European needs over Japan's.

tanaka 2.jpgOn top of the gloom about nuclear energy supply doldrums in Japan, the hard consequences of tensions with Iran, there is a third area of concern Tanaka has:  the weather.  He said that if Japan has a very hot summer -- which some are projecting -- Japan will run another 10% short of supplies on top of the shortages it already projects.

But even all this is not the end of the squeeze.

Japan's other partial energy option is the importation of liquified natural gas (LNG) -- which it imports from Malaysia, Brunei, Qatar, UAE, Indonesia and Australia. Japan needs to further boost imports if it can but prices for LNG are surging.  The combined energy deficit Japan is facing would require a net increase, according to Tanaka, of LNG and oil that would run about $40 billion a year -- wiping out completely Japan's trade surpluses and more.

In meetings hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies this past week, Nobuo Tanaka made an appeal for the US to export some of its cheap LNG supply to Japan.  The price of LNG in Japan is currently four times the price in the United States. 

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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