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A Yen for Nuclear Energy: Japan's Power Conundrum

Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
Issei Kato | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

Japan's aggressive monetary policy and its sliding currency may have an unintended side-effect: pushing the country back into the embrace of nuclear technology, a power source the country has avoided since a nuclear disaster two years ago.

Ever since a 2011 natural disaster triggered a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan has idled the country's 22 nuclear reactors, which at one point were used to generate 30 percent of its electrical power. A lack of natural resources forces the world's third-largest economy to rely heavily on imported energy, which the World Nuclear Association estimates is about 84 percent of Japan's energy requirements.

Meanwhile, Japan's reliance on fossil fuels and liquefied natural gas imports are eroding what used to be the developed world's largest trade surplus. That dynamic is worsened by a weak yen—which has plunged recently as the Bank of Japan embraced money printing on steroids—that is driving up import prices.

(Read More: Yen Selling May Become an 'Avalanche,' Soros Says)

As a result, at least one analyst believes Japan—which is the world's largest importer of LNG, occupies the second spot in coal imports and is third only to the U.S. and China in oil imports—may have to consider a nuclear option.

A cheap currency may drive energy prices up beyond the threshold of pain for consumers and businesses, said Alex Ashby, research analyst at Global X Fund, with close to $2 billion in assets under management.

In that context, the government may be forced to consider restarting the country's arsenal of nuclear power plants, which provide affordable juice for the nearly $6 trillion economy.

"If you look at the cost of [idle nuclear plants], Japan has to rely much more heavily on energy importing to meet their economic needs," Ashby said. "Obviously, as costs escalate, it makes businesses difficult to compete."

Certain factors underscore how events might conspire to force Japan's hand on the nuclear issue.

Japan's own Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates the nuclear shutdown is costing the utility companies around $13 billion a year—a real strain on an economy mired in recession. Meanwhile, market prices for uranium have plunged 40 percent since Tokyo shut down the country's reactors, which could make it cheaper for the country to fire up its nuclear plants again.

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently embarked on a world tour to strengthen ties to energy producing countries like the United Arab Emirates. That could work to Japan's benefit in two ways: helping other countries benefit from Japan's nuclear know-how, as Tokyo cajoles them into getting a break on its oil and gas bills.

Yet some say it appears unlikely Japan will switch back to nuclear power anytime soon. In the wake of Fukushima, the issue has become a political football, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has made no concrete effort to crank up the country's idle reactors.

Additionally, stoking higher prices is an explicit policy objective by the Bank of Japan, says Alessio de Longis, a portfolio manager at OppenheimerFunds. He acknowledges that high energy prices could eventually force the BOJ to rein in a weak yen and cheap money. At present, the central bank hasn't reached that point of no return.

"For Japan, the very first chance at succeeding at [higher inflation] is getting it done through a weaker yen and the immediate impact on inflation. That is accomplished exactly through import price inflation, which is dominated by energy imports," he said.

Thus far, that strategy appears to be playing out in the favor of Japan's monetary authorities. In March, Japanese crude imports soared by 7 percent, while LNG imports jumped by 8.8 percent. According to data from the International Group of LNG Importers, Japan imported more than 108 billion cubic meters of LNG in 2012, which comprised nearly 40 percent of global demand for the energy source.

"Paradoxically, it's the growing reliance on foreign energy and food gives the BOJ a higher probability of succeeding in the immediate future," Oppenheimer's de Longis said.

By CNBC's Javier E. David

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