Reactor Politics: Domestic Politics and Nuclear Energy in East Asia

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Cho Il-hyun
Name in Latin Alphabet:
Nationality: 대한민국(미국 영주권)
Affiliation: Lafayette College

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns led some countries, most notably Germany, to renounce nuclear power altogether. However, East Asian countries, after initial suspension or shutdown, resumed or revamped the operation of nuclear reactors. Even in Japan where public opposition to nuclear power remains strong, the ruling government has been seeking to restart nuclear reactors. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also inked a nuclear pact with India, laying the foundation for exporting nuclear reactors and related technologies to the energy-strapped nation, an arrangement mirroring South Korea’s nuclear deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China’s nuclear cooperation agreements with France. What explains East Asia’s region-wide drive for nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima context? What are likely regional and global consequences? Most analyses on nuclear energy examine either the technical aspects of nuclear reactor operation or the role of domestic interest groups in influencing energy policymaking. Others explore the effects of anti-nuclear public sentiments as a key variable shaping the energy debate in countries with nuclear power plants. With an empirical focus on Japan, China, and South Korea, this paper examines how nuclear energy intersects with domestic politics in East Asia. Specifically, it demonstrates how nuclear energy has become a new source of domestic political contestation and a symbol of global prestige in East Asia. A comparative analysis of the domestic political debate on nuclear energy is important for the following reasons. First, given the increasing and largely successful campaign against nuclear energy in Europe, the contrasting nuclear push in East Asia offers an opportunity to evaluate the nature of domestic politics behind energy policy in general and nuclear power in particular. Second, East Asia’s efforts to boost nuclear energy highlight the continuing relevance of a top-down, state-led approach and the salience of domestic political and global status considerations in energy policy. As the three countries seek to expand their nuclear energy programs and their shares in the global markets, the new energy drive will intensify competition among the three nations over regional energy leadership and international standing. The competitive push for nuclear energy in East Asia will also help diminish the effects of the global nonproliferation norm in the region and beyond.