Comparative study of the history of energy policy in France and Japan
Purpose of the research
France and Japan are both industrialized countries without rich national energy resources. At present, the two countries produce almost no oil, natural gas, or coal. However, despite their similarities in terms of natural resources, their energy mix policies differ. While France has made efforts since the 1960s to make nuclear power its single major means of producing electricity, Japan has attempted to diversify its sources of electricity since the oil shock. This research aims to analyze the determinants that explain why these two nations differ in their energy policies.
Historical evolution of the energy mix policy in France
In France, the first nationwide electricity development program dates back to 1938. The program sought to increase electricity production through hydroelectricity, which had been stagnant since the great recession, and therefore reduce the trade deficit caused by the import of coal and reinforce national security.
After World War II, the French government nationalized the energy industry (electricity, gas, and coal), and set up the Électricité de France (EDF), Gaz de France (GDF), and Charbonnages de France (CDF). It also launched a new national electricity development program in the framework of its first plan of modernization, the Monnet Plan (1946-52). It aimed to increase national electricity production, primarily through hydroelectricity and thermal power plants that consumed low-quality coal, for which the CDF could not find a market outlet. This policy intended to minimize the consumption of fossil fuels sold on the market, as they remained scarce after the war. It was during this period that the construction of the huge Génissiat Dam on the Rhône River was completed.
By the end of the timeline fixed for the Monnet Plan, electricity production in France successfully reached the target level. In 1952, electricity production from hydroelectricity reached 22,410 million kWh, and thermal power plants produced 18,330 million kWh. The coal production of CDF also increased, as projected by the Monnet Plan. However, the trade deficit caused by the import of energy resources remained one of the most serious economic issues in the first half of the 1950s. It was clear that France had fewer and fewer sites that were suitable for the economically reasonable production of hydroelectricity, which pushed the EDF to shift to thermal energy as the main means of production. Faced with rising demand for electricity and fossil fuels, the French made efforts to increase coal production and searched for oil fields in their colonies in Africa. Nonetheless, it was estimated that the gap between the demand for energy resources and the national production of fossil fuels would remain large. Therefore, the government had already proposed to make nuclear energy the major source of electricity production, as outlined in the report on the third plan of modernization (1954–57), even though the production of electricity from such source was still at an experimental stage.
The situation did not go as the CGP predicted in France because the rapid increase in the use of petrol caused a decline in the sales of coal after 1958, and the enormous stock in the mines plummeted. This heralded the structural recession of the French coal industry. Now that the national coal market was saturated, France did not necessarily depend only on nuclear energy to improve its trade balance because the government had the option to make nuclear energy and national coal the two major sources of electricity to reduce the outflow of US dollars. This option would have been preferable had the government prioritized keeping French miners employed. However, the government did not follow this course. It held on to its policy of deploying nuclear power plants as the unique and major means of production. It was estimated that it would be the best way to realize the maximal economic production of electricity in the country.
In 1974, the French government announced the Messmer Plan, which confirmed a program of constructing a large-scale nuclear power plant. Neither the accident on Three Miles Island (1979) nor the catastrophic disaster in Chernobyl (1986) prevented the government from changing its course of action. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, electricity production from nuclear energy increased. While the annual production in 1980 was only 379 GWh out of 2,310 GWh of the total electricity production, it reached 3,140 GWh in 1990 out of a total electricity production of 4,244 GWh. In 2000, it had increased to 4,152 GWh out of a total electricity production of 5,500 GWh. As such, France had become the world’s most nuclear-dominant country.
After the nuclear accident in Fukushima, the French legislature passed a law—la loi sur la transition énergétique pour la croissance verte—seeking to decrease the share of nuclear-derived electricity to 50% in 2025 and to increase electricity production from renewable energies. Nonetheless, the government not only postponed the planned reduction in the share of nuclear electricity from 2025 to 2035, but President Macron also reiterated the importance of nuclear energy to the French economy. It seems France will continue to find it difficult to transition from its dependency on nuclear energy.
Historical evolution of the energy mix policy in Japan
In Japan, the electricity industry was implanted at the end of the 19 th century, under the wave of westernization. Since the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905), electricity companies had been investing more in hydroelectricity than in thermal energy because of the soaring price of coal. In contrast to France, the recession in the 1930s did not prevent electric companies from investing in hydroelectricity, even as they continued constructing thermal power plants.
In 1939, the government took control of the electricity industry. It sought to accelerate hydroelectric production. This policy was maintained by the government even after state control over the electricity industry ended in 1950. The five-year electricity development program set up by the government in 1951 aimed to increase electricity production mainly through hydroelectricity. However, Japan did not nationalize the electricity industry. In other words, electricity companies were not required to follow or implement the program, but were expected to invest alongside it. It was in this period that the program for the construction of Kurobe Dam, one of the largest and well-known hydroelectric power plants, was launched.
In 1956, the energy policy of the government changed. It announced the new five-year electricity development program. The program advised the electricity industry to shift from hydroelectricity to thermal energy as the main source of production to rapidly satisfy the growing demand for electricity.
From the onset of the 1960s, Japanese electricity companies constructed an increasing number of thermal power plants that consumed fuel oil, both because the government allowed them to build thermal power plants that consumed only fuel oil in 1960, and because the market price of oil fell drastically. As such, in 1970, 59% of the total electricity production (2,939 GWh) was represented by the thermal power plants consuming fuel oil.
The two oil shocks in the 1970s again changed Japanese energy policy. Faced with the rising price of fuel oil and a security problem, Japanese electricity companies were urged to stop their dependence on fuel oil. They aimed to diversify their production of electricity, especially through the construction of thermal power plants that consumed LNG and coal, as well as nuclear power plants. Thus, the energy mix had become highly balanced as early as 1990 in Japan. While nuclear energy represented 27.3% of the total electricity production (7,376 GWh), hydroelectricity accounted for 11.9%, coal thermal power plants, 13.7%, LNG thermal power plants, 22.4%, and fuel oil thermal power plants, 25.6%.
After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, electricity companies suspended operations in most of their nuclear power plants for safety inspections. However, the Japanese energy policy of diversifying the sources of electricity production did not change. The government announced a new energy development program in July 2021, which aimed for nuclear energy to account for 20–22% of total electricity production in 2030, coal-based thermal energy, 19%, LNG-based thermal energy, 20%, fuel oil-based thermal energy, 2%, hydroelectricity, 10%, and renewable energy (except for hydroelectricity), 26–28%.
Specific research topic that will be examined at the Fondation France-Japon de l’EHESS
There have been extensive studies regarding the history of energy policy and energy industries both in France and in Japan. Most of these studies focus on the history of one nation’s energy policy or industries (Picard et al , Frost , Kikkawa ). Some historians try to compare France’s history of energy policy with other occidental countries, so as to bring into relief her particularities (Jasper , Chick ). But, the comparison with Japan has never been examined.
In fact, one of the most influential determinants of the policies on energy mix is the natural energy resources that a country produces. The similarities between Japan and France in the production of natural energy resources, being two industrialized countries without almost any production of fossil combustibles, led the researcher to consider that the comparison of the histories of the two countries’ energy policy will contribute to clarify the particularities of the historical determinants that made each country’s particularity in the energy mix.
In order to analyze it, the researcher sets up specific research topics as follows;
a) The role that the governments of France and Japan expected nuclear energy to play during the 50s and 60s
The 50s and 60s were, both in Japan and in France, a period when the economy grew dynamically; Les Trente glorieuses [glorious thirty years] in France and Kôdo Seichô Ki [dynamic growth period] in Japan. It was also during this time that the civil use of these countries’ nuclear energy transited gradually from the experimental step to the commercial step. The previous studies on the French nuclear policy in the 50s and 60s tended to focus on the military aspect (Sheinman ), except for the study by Hecht , that analyzed the political-social aspect of the development of the civil use of nuclear energy in France during that period.
In fact, the civil use of the nuclear energy is not necessarily an incidental result of the military development of the nuclear energy, considering that the report published by the government (Energy commission of the Commissariat du Plan) in the mid-50s proposed to satisfy the rising demand for electricity mainly with nuclear energy. The researcher aims to examine what kind of role it expected to civil use of nuclear energy for what reason during the 50s and 60s.
In parallels, the energy policy in Japan during the same period will also be examined. This research aims to clarify the role that the Japanese government expected for the nuclear energy to play at the dawn of the civil use of the nuclear energy and to compare it with the French case, so that it is this time when the governments make up the basic orientation of the development of the civil use of the nuclear energy.
The perception of both governments as for the economic advantage of nuclear power plants, such as the reduction of the outflow of US dollars brought about by the import of the fuel-oil, and the expected advantages in the cost of the production of electricity from nuclear energy, will be especially reconsidered by the researcher, as these factors have not yet been thoroughly examined by historians.
b) The evolution of the policies on energy mix after the oil crisis until the 80s in France and in Japan
In France, the oil crisis of 1973 did not drastically change the policy on energy mix. The French government just reconfirmed the importance of the nuclear energy for the nation. On the other hand, in Japan, the oil crisis caused the government to reconsider and modify the policy on energy mix, as it had promoted the use of foreign fuel in the electricity sector since the 60s. It is well known that Japan shifted from fuel to natural gas imported from overseas as the main combustible of the thermal power plants after the oil crisis. However, the previous studies have not thoroughly examined the reason why. In Japan, the nuclear energy was not regarded as essential to the production of electricity as it was in France, though it would have been the best solution to be independent in obtaining the energy resource and to produce electricity at a relatively low cost.
The researcher aims to clarify the political, economic and social determinants that led to Japan choosing not to use the nuclear energy as the dominant means of the production of electricity. The topics analyzed will be, for example, the diplomatic relationship between the natural-gas producing countries and Japan as the political factor, the evolution of the cost of the production of electricity from natural gas, fuel-oil, and nuclear energy as the economic factor, and the impacts of anti-nuclear environment movements and public opinion on the energy policies as the social factors. The research will be executed by consulting the previous studies and the government archives. In addition, the newspapers in France and Japan (Le Monde, Le Figaro, Asahi, Yominuri) will also be consulted to compare the social reactions and public opinions to the catastrophic nuclear accidents in 1986 in Chernobyl.
Qualitative analysis based on documents and historical archives.
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