Thought Leader: Nobuo Tanaka

March 20, 2012

Nobuo Tanaka

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks for coming, Tanaka-san.

NOBUO TANAKA: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: What are you working on right now at the think tank? You're a global associate for the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan. You are the former head of the International Energy Agency [IEA] in Paris. What's your current project?

NOBUO TANAKA: I returned from Paris in September last year, and I'm working for this Institute of Energy Economics. It's a MITI [Ministry of International Trade and Industry] operation. It's, I think, one of the best energy think tanks even in the world. We have about 200 staff doing lots of assessment about energy policy, not only technology per se, but more energy policy.

The Japanese situation now is such an interesting one because of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, its catastrophe. The government has started to rebuild the energy policy of Japan and trying to make a best mix of different energy sources by the summer.

My contribution is that my experience as executive director of the International Energy Agency helps to give some global context or regional view, rather than the domestic implication of nuclear power to the other part of the economy. I am telling the government people, as well as the public, what is the necessary requirement to enhance energy security of Japan.

Of course, nuclear power is a very important part of it. But nuclear power cannot be deployed as much as we had thought before. It means that if nuclear is not that available, then we need to use more gas. But where should the gas come?

DEVIN STEWART: Why isn't it able to be deployed?

NOBUO TANAKA: Because, simply, the public acceptance of nuclear is tremendously undermined because of the accident. There's a pretty, let's say, important lesson from Fukushima. But without clear safety standards, more strict standards of safety, the people will never accept nuclear power to build and to be deployed in Japan—unfortunate, but it's a very tough truth after Fukushima.

What I'm saying is that, yes, we need all the energy sources, not only atomic energy, but renewables, gas, coal, oil—also energy efficiency is a very important one—to try to give what other countries are trying to do. Europe is trying to make renewable energy a much more important option, like Germany. The United States has huge resources of natural gas. A shale gas revolution is happening. China has coal. Russia has everything.

To protect the stable supply of energy, we need to have a good policy in Japan—not only in Japan, but more collectively with other countries around Asia. What the Japanese government is trying to do in the country certainly has implications for the global collaboration.

This is what I try to input into the deliberation of the new energy policy of Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Some media has recorded you as being fairly pro nuclear energy for Japan. One would think that that would be applicable for other countries. Do you think that nuclear energy is morally right, given what we have seen in Fukushima? What are the ethical considerations that one would have to weigh to make those decisions?

NOBUO TANAKA: The ethical perspective of the nuclear power should go to the weaponization of the nuclear power. Japan, as you know, has historically the big theme of the nuclear bomb in the Second World War. We condemned the use of nuclear weapons, and we are a strong promoter of diminishing nuclear warfare, as well as defense mechanisms or whatever is the military use of nuclear. Japan committed very strongly to the safety of peaceful use of nuclear power.

Accidents are another thing. The human technology always causes accidents, and nuclear is not an exception. How to prevent these tragic accidents from happening is the very important issue. It's a technological issue. It's a government role. It's a private sector role as an operator and a utility. We have to manage this technology, to use it for the economic growth of the country and to make people's lives easier, healthier, and wealthier. This is a necessary part of the energy supply. As a base load of electricity, nuclear has definitely the established technology and cost-benefit.

A country like India or a country like China or Russia—these emerging big countries are going to use nuclear power, regardless of what would happen in Japan. To have peaceful and safe use of nuclear power, Japan must contribute in the operation of these countries. After Fukushima, the Japanese, if we use this accident as a big lesson for the future operation, future regulation, or future technologies, nuclear power could be much safer.

We have the obligation to make nuclear power safer, not only for ourselves, but for our neighboring emerging economies. China needs to use it. India needs to use it for their economic growth. We want to see that happen peacefully and safely. Otherwise, we suffer. We are located east of these countries, and all the possible plumes of an atomic accident will come over us if something happens there. It is a very strong necessity on the Japanese side to maintain the safe technology for the operation in our neighboring countries.

DEVIN STEWART: India and Vietnam both are eager to increase their energy generation. They are looking toward Japan, for its record of being able to manufacture power plants. Here's a really tough moral question. Is it right for Japanese companies to sell Japanese nuclear power in other countries if the Japanese people themselves, at home, are against nuclear power?

NOBUO TANAKA: It's not a matter of ethical or not. This country needs the technology, nuclear power. We have to sell it and help them to build safer nuclear reactors. But my assumption is that without holding the very good capacity of building nuclear power reactors in Japan, we cannot export.

It's not a matter of ethics. We cannot be considered as a reliable supplier if we are not using it in Japan. Simply, this kind of thing will not happen, because maintaining the capacity of producing reactors or facilities or steam generators or these major technologies must be maintained by manufacturing it. If you quit manufacturing, these technologies or techniques will be lost.

So it's not a question of ethics, but more an economic or technological necessity—that maintaining the capacity of nuclear power is necessary in Japan, if we want to export it.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we go on to a bigger-picture question, a last question specifically about Japan. A lot of people have said that the trust in the government has declined quite a bit after March 11.

NOBUO TANAKA: Not declined, totally lost.

DEVIN STEWART: Can it recover? What are the consequences?

NOBUO TANAKA: This is a really serious problem after Fukushima. The Japanese government regulatory authority lost the confidence from the public—possibly politics also, losing the confidence of controlling the situation, managing the situation. There are plenty of cases and evidence and lessons from Fukushima that we are learning. Unfortunately, this was human error. Certainly the responsibility is on the government.

Whatever the technology, I think the trust in the government or producers or utilities is really the key element. Without public acceptance, it's very difficult to deploy these technologies.

Can we recover it? The only thing we have to do is to clearly analyze, very precisely analyze why this mistake, the human error, happened in Fukushima. At the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, which caused this accident, many of the scientists or nuclear engineers whom I talked to recently told me that everybody knew that this power station has a risk, but nobody reacted to the fact that there was a risk. And they could have done something.

Other stations very close by—north of Fukushima Daiichi, there is Onagawa plant, Tohoku Electric. They built the power plant 10 meters higher than the original plant, because they knew that tsunami is a very often happening catastrophe in that region. So they prepared themselves for the tsunami. This plant was totally safe.

This problem of seismic shock didn't cause any problem to any reactor. But other stations, like Fukushima Daini—this is the same TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] station, but they have a much newer facility. They had prepared for the occurrence of the tsunami.

Another very interesting case is Tokai Daini. This is in the Ibaraki Prefecture, a little south of Fukushima. It was also attacked by the tsunami, but escaped because they built a facility of emergency pumps, et cetera, into the cage, or building, to protect from the tsunami, just by a matter of a day or two. So they were in time.

It's very unfortunate that Fukushima Daiichi didn't prepare enough for a tsunami. There should be some reason for them to analyze who is responsible, what was wrong with this plant. It is a very, very important lesson that we learn and show to the public why we made this mistake. By doing so, I think at least this transparent and clear lesson will help to recover some part of the trust or confidence we lost. That kind of exercise is really important—transparency, et cetera.

Also we made a lot of mistakes. The regulatory commission made a mistake of [not] accepting some of the suggestions which the United States government, NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], made to Japan. For example, after 9/11, the terrorist attack was really imminent in the United States. They asked all power plants to prepare for that kind of attack and eventual plant station blackout. All the reactors in the United States prepared for such an occurrence. The NRC suggested that Japan should do the same thing. We just simply declined to do it. And if we had done so, probably this accident could have been avoided.

So there were lots of mistakes the regulators did. These facts are getting revealed one after another, with lots of different investigation commissions, created by the public, created by the private sector, created by the Diet. This is a very important ethical, in a way, obligation of the government to show the people why we made a mistake.

DEVIN STEWART: Those are great themes, Mr. Tanaka.


DEVIN STEWART: Going to the big picture here for the Thought Leaders Forum that we're hosting at Carnegie Council: Looking at the big picture and the planet, looking back at your experiences in Europe and the United States and Asia—you have been based all around the world; you have government, NGO, international organization experience—what do you see as distinct about the time that we live in today? Is there an ethical or moral dimension to what makes it distinct?

NOBUO TANAKA: Sure. It is true that in a global world there are very rich countries and poor countries, and very rich people, while there are very poor and starving people on the other side, those who are living only on one dollar a year.

It is amazing that more than 2 billion people do not have access to electricity. It's Africa, it's India, some parts of Latin America. All people equally, let's say, have a right to have a very healthy and comfortable life. Access to energy, access to electricity, is a very important part of the issue—or a solution or a program—that we have to tackle. IEA analyzes how many people do not have this access, how many populations do not have healthy cooking devices, for example?

The cost of achieving this energy access, solving the energy problem, is not huge—just $25 billion, $26 billion a year. Compared to the amount of consumption that we do in the developed economies, this is a minuscule amount of money. Also, we know how to do that.

Of course, the demand for energy is getting more and more in these countries. Emerging economies, growing economies consume more energy. So the price of energy is going up. But also abundant energy sources are the renewables, like solar, wind, et cetera, and a more decentralized system, not the huge nuclear reactor combined with grid lines. These are very costly options. For the poorer economies, more decentralized renewables—mini-hydro is another one—this kind of decentralized system of electricity supply could be a good solution.

How to provide enough financing to this kind of activity is key. It's not easy. The big economy model does not work in this kind of situation. There are plenty of good examples which are successful. Grameen Bank is one. Mini-financing through the women collaboratively—this is a very interesting idea. India is using this kind of mechanism, using women for providing solar power battery and lighting in the very poor, rural areas. So that gives a huge opportunity to the people for access to electricity.

This is one of the ethical issues which I am acquainted with in my capacity as executive director of this energy agency.

DEVIN STEWART: What's at stake, Mr. Tanaka, if we fail to provide more people with access to electricity? What could we see?

NOBUO TANAKA: These people who don't have access to electricity cannot grow or cannot enjoy a much more healthy and comfortable life, which they deserve to do. It's also a problem for everybody, because if these people are isolated out from the growth path, then destabilization happens eventually. Instability of the global community will happen.

If people do not have anything to lose, the only thing they do is just go to the violence. It's inevitable. So how to maintain the healthy life, or at least something to lose—we have to have a common agenda and necessity to tackle this issue.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking ahead a little bit, what do you predict will be one of the biggest choices that government and people will have to make in your area? Do we have to make a tradeoff between the future of the environment for generating electricity today? Are there going to be big tradeoffs? What are the tough choices that we're going to have to make?

NOBUO TANAKA: That is interesting. Yes, probably. It depends on what kinds of goals you set. For example, if we have to achieve so-called climate change mitigation—CO2 emission reduction or greenhouse gas reduction—maybe we need to use much, much less energy in the future, in the process of economic growth. It means that the lifestyle of the people would be very different from what we see today.

So those big, emerging economies, like China, India, cannot use the same model or path which OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, including Europe, Japan, or the United States, have enjoyed. It should be restructured in a more innovative way of building or a lifestyle, like appliances. A much more energy-efficient way of life is mandatory. Also in that sense, the developed economy should do some part of this obligation by changing its lifestyle.

DEVIN STEWART: Along with the other part—

NOBUO TANAKA: Because otherwise we cannot convince China, India, or African people to do differently.

DEVIN STEWART: It's not fair.

NOBUO TANAKA: It's not fair. So we have to change, ourselves, our way of life, and then let them do their thing.

But also it is true that a country like China is now investing very heavily in renewable energy—wind, solar cells. They are the largest producer of the solar photovoltaic cells, the biggest deployment of the windmills. They are much more serious about the electric vehicle in China, because they know that petroleum will not be abundant in the future to use in billions of cars there. It's simply impossible.

DEVIN STEWART: Am I getting that you are saying that we're going to have to have a more conservative way of living?

NOBUO TANAKA: Well, not conservative. It is more an environmentally friendly or sustainable way of life. It's not necessarily the more humble. It could be a different way of life—more electrification, but an efficient way of using cooling systems. The U.S. is a typical case. Don't drive the big car, is one thing, more public transportation, live closer, in the one segment of the economy using cogeneration power and heating.

So there are plenty of existing technologies which make the use of energy much more efficient. So deploy all of these technologies or mechanisms into the way of life, and the way of life could be very different from what we do now.

If China successfully introduces these technologies or lifestyle, China can be a good leader, a very, very important leader of these new technologies—the so-called green paradigm of the future. China can use these technologies or knowhow, way of life, as a model to export to the countries who are coming after—India or Africa. China's green model could be a very interesting test case, how they establish all-electric vehicles on the ground or gas vehicles or a different way of living, a way of eating, dining.

So we'll see. China cannot grow without this kind of tremendous change of the lifestyle.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that essentially how you see leadership?

NOBUO TANAKA: Yes, leadership plays a very important role to give incentives sometimes for the renewable energy sources or electric vehicles at the beginning of the technologies. Premature technology needs some government assistance. The market cannot really make this happen. So at least at the beginning, some kind of government assistance is probably necessary.

DEVIN STEWART: If you were advising people listening to this, from a variety of organizations—if you are looking at organizations like companies or NGOs or universities—or even as individuals, if you could just give them one piece of advice on what moral facet of the decision making to focus on, what would it be?

NOBUO TANAKA: You mean moral issues they have to focus on?


NOBUO TANAKA: It is difficult to say. Is there any one single moral issue in the world to solve all the problems? It cannot easily be said. But I can say that each person, each country, or each region has its own right to make a comfortable life. That is for everybody the same.

But historical reality makes some countries to make this new way of life very difficult and costly. The energy price is getting higher and higher. These newcomers cannot enjoy the cheap energy price for their economic growth as we did in the 19th, 20th centuries. Countries who have already grown up are responsible to help these countries, the newcomers, to enjoy the growth as much as possible.

DEVIN STEWART: That means leadership? Does it also mean direct assistance?

NOBUO TANAKA: Leadership of the governments, yes, NGOs, the private sector. Each has its own different responsibilities probably. I cannot easily say this is the common feature.

But at least, when we have to build our policies or business models or an NGO's perspective, we simply just put these issues of the global issue into consideration, to make it a part of the simultaneous equation. At least we make an assessment of the impact of our regular decisions. That is probably the way to give some kind of understanding and notion: If this decision is taking place, what would be the impact on the other part of the world? Then at least you can think about it and make a proper decision.

We cannot decide only for the emerging economy, the growing economy. We have to decide for ourselves also. But at the same time, this kind of global context is very important to be input into our policymaking. That is what probably we have to do.

DEVIN STEWART: Which issues are being ignored that concern you? What are the roadblocks to tackling those issues?

NOBUO TANAKA: Sometimes we call it the global governance issue—global governance in energy, global governance in whatever thing you call. Of course, there are plenty of trials that happened in the history—G7, G8, G5, whatever Gs, G20, or OECD, et cetera, APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation], ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. You can name many, many international organizations or frameworks trying to at least solve part of the problem.

DEVIN STEWART: So there's a governance problem.

NOBUO TANAKA: Yes, it is a governance problem. But there's no single silver bullet to this kind of question. We have to use all of these different layers of organization, sometimes bilateral, sometimes multilateral, sometimes regional—try to use all these different layers of the international bodies to achieve at least the similar objective of this economic growth, with access to electricity, whatever you call it. By doing so, we can harmonize the discussion.

Each has different roles or missions given. It's very difficult to say that we just simply are coordinating to one direction. But remember that we are always meeting each other from time to time in very different international occasions and talking about their programs and consolidate and try to understand and try to find out some solutions.

Governance mechanisms—there's no silver bullet, as I said, but at least there are plenty of international bodies who are motivated to do that. How we can use these international bodies is the key. It's up to the individual countries or major economies or people who can use these international organizations.

Very often these international bodies are underutilized. They can do much more than they think. So how to wisely use these international bodies is probably the very important issue for anybody.

DEVIN STEWART: Earlier you talked about transparency as a key to restoring trust of the public. Would you say that's your most valued ethical principle or moral principle that you have discovered in your career?

NOBUO TANAKA: Yes, transparency is certainly the one. But in my career, an important ethic is don't run away from the problem. Just cope with it. Just face it. That is the kind of ethics which I always maintain myself. Don't run away. Just face it and try to solve the problem. It's not easy to solve the problem, but if you don't run away, you will eventually find the solution, or at least part of it.

Transparency is a part of the method of showing the way and convincing others, to achieve some consensus. Yes, transparency is probably the best way to achieve this consensus direction. But to make this happen, any leader should not give up, should just try.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great ethic, Mr. Tanaka. Have you witnessed this same sense in others? Part of this project is to try to explore a sense of a global ethic. What does that mean to you, "a global ethic"?

NOBUO TANAKA: Is there collective thinking about how we can collectively achieve ethics? Human beings have always had certain common goodwill, good understanding. We can rely on the goodwill of people. Ethics is how we can maintain the good living of people and keep good relations with each other. Ethics is a way to harmonize the way of life for all the human beings around the world. Japanese ethics is how to maintain this kind of harmonization, to harmonize with others. Sometimes you must be humble to make a good collaboration.

So ethics is sometimes used as a symbol to do something just or your right to do justly. But maybe it's not always easy to say there's only one right thing to do, just thing to do. Different people have different ethics. Different people may have different value systems.

Accepting some different systems in the world is probably very important to make a good harmonization and good coexistence of the world. That's the basics of ethics. You must not define ethics as just one. There are plenty of different ethics or value systems in the world.

DEVIN STEWART: We like to call that pluralism.

NOBUO TANAKA: Yes, pluralism is one. Each has different a historical ground to make it. How to accommodate these different systems into a more harmonious existence is the wisdom of people, wisdom of leaders probably.

DEVIN STEWART: Last question, Mr. Tanaka. This is a fun one. Use your imagination and sort of think about science fiction here. Imagine 100 years into the future. How would you like it to look, and how would we get there?

NOBUO TANAKA: I'll certainly be dead, so it's not my job. But if my children's children's children may come back, and if I have a chance, as a science fiction time, to exist and go there and see how my descendants are enjoying their lives or leadership, I think I want everybody to kind of accommodate each other and understand each other, a more harmonious way of coexistence, friendly relationships. I hope this kind of society, community, can be created.

This is another value probably. Diversity is very important for the growth or development of our creativity, innovation. How to maintain these diversified sources of energy is energy security. But for the society, how to maintain these diversified human beings in one community is the key for the success of the growth of the community. The United States is one of the best models so far. We want to see many different models of this kind of creativity that may happen in a different part of the world.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great note to end on, Mr. Tanaka. Thank you so much.

NOBUO TANAKA: You're most welcome. A very interesting, innovative way of thinking. This is a very interesting project. Good luck.

DEVIN STEWART: I appreciate it. Thank you.