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Five Years After Fukushima, Japan’s Nuclear Power Debate Is Heating Up

The push to restart the country’s reactors overlooks the promise of renewable energy sources.

IAEA fact-finding team leader Mike Weightman examines the Fukushima site. Image via Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

Last Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threw his weight behind the redevelopment of his nation’s nuclear energy plants. It was a bold stance, made bolder because he voiced it on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami in northeastern Japan that left 18,500 dead or missing and precipitated the Fukushima nuclear disaster—the world’s worst since Chernobyl and the reason for the eventual shutdown of the nation’s 54 nuclear facilities.

Abe’s case for nuclear redevelopment is strong, simple, and already accepted by many in the nation: “Our resource-poor country cannot do without nuclear power to secure the stability of energy supply while considering what makes economic sense and the issue of climate change,” Abe said at a press conference last week. Post-Fukushima regulations, the prime minister argues, make nuclear power safer than ever, as do major advances in reactor technology. This belief has led the nation to green-light the reopening of a few reactors, starting with two in Kagoshima in August 2015, with seemingly minimal pushback.

But Abe’s narrative isn’t the only way of looking at this. Others, like Naoto Kan, who was prime minister during the Fukushima disaster, have argued that the nation doesn’t need nuclear power at all. Instead, they say, renewable energy sources are the future of Japan. They may look more expensive and less feasible than restoring the nation’s massive nuclear capacity. But that may be an illusion. It can be hard from a layman’s perspective to sort out who’s right about Japan’s nuclear future, Abe or Kan. But a number of studies and pilot projects suggest that Kan’s correct when he says Japan could thrive without ever-troublesome nuclear power—although the country’s political powers seem stacked against that viable future.

The Nunobiki wind farm in Japan. Image via Flickr user contri.

Those who agree with Abe see nuclear power as vital, given what’s happened to Japan without it. As of 2011, Japan had the third-greatest nuclear capacity among the world’s nations, behind only France and the United States, with reactors providing 30 percent of the country’s energy. Some hoped to hit 60 percent reliance by 2100. But since shutting off the reactors, Japan has been forced to rely on imported, costlier fuels, rapidly becoming the world’s largest gas importer, second-largest coal importer, and third-largest crude importer to feed its massive energy needs. Even with global oil prices in a tailspin, Japan’s 84 percent reliance on these materials has sent utility prices through the roof and spurred the worrying creation of dozens of new coal plants, which produce some of the smoggiest energy out there.

Looking at the numbers, Abe’s followers argue that the nation needs to derive at least 22 percent of its energy from nuclear power by 2030 to thrive—which is to say that 30 to 37 reactors must be online by then. That figure seems to accord with the government’s 2015 15-year energy plan, which aims to boost renewable energy contributions to between 22 and 24 percent of the grid, alongside nuclear revivals.

But these predictions shortchange Japan’s renewable potential. Sure, outside of hydropower, renewables account for just about 3 percent of Japan’s grid right now, and the sector has grown miserably slowly since the beginning of the new millennium. But that’s at least in part because, from 2002 to 2011, Japan was nuclear-obsessive.

Some companies are eager to invest in Japan’s untapped solar potential. Even if they could just complete existing proposals (like offshore arrays), some think they could fill 8 percent of Japan’s energy needs, all without affecting otherwise productive land. In a 2011 report, the country’s Ministry of the Environment backed the power of wind, arguing that installing arrays of turbines along unused wind hotspots—even if they only ran a quarter of the time—could provide energy equivalent to 40 nuclear reactors. And a slew of companies are exploring the nation’s geothermal potential (the world’s third greatest), which may be able to provide up to a third of the nation’s power needs—essentially doing the same thing as nuclear energy but with much less risk.

“To import a very complex and difficult technology to boil water in the world’s most seismically active country when there is such vast geothermal potential strikes me as madness,” Canadian renewables expert David Suzuki told the Japan Times in 2013.

Takahama nuclear power plant. Image via Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

Critics argue that perhaps Japan does have great renewables potential, but it’s obviously not moving quickly enough, even with post-Fukushima incentives, to offset traditional fuels. Meanwhile, up to 40 nuclear reactors could come back online in the blink of an eye.

But this account misses the fact that renewables’ slow development isn’t proof that they suck. (Although, admittedly, Japanese solar technology is lagging and it does take a good amount of time and money to develop renewable energy facilities.) Renewables are mainly bogged down by entrenched interests, from groups like the nation’s geothermal spa association, which fears (it seems baselessly) that drilling for such power could rob them of their hot springs, to monopolistic utility companies that are allied with nuclear power interests and reluctant to reform their grids.

It also misses the fact that just because Japan has nuclear reactors it can restart doesn’t necessarily make nuclear power a cheap answer, economically or socially. Although officials and industry experts have made the case that panic about nuclear disasters is overblown and shortsighted and insist that they can create foolproof security systems, the public still has its doubts. Inspired in part by the long, fraught process of cleaning up Fukushima, and in part by concerns among experts and local residents that new safety regimes may not be as perfect as advertised, antinuclear sentiment remains high in the nation.

A Fukushima memorial in 2013. Image via Flickr user greensefa.

The courts recently bolstered popular skepticism as well: Just before Abe’s big pro-nuclear declaration, a district judge ordered the closure of a recently reopened nuclear reactor in Takahama—the second reopened since the moratorium. The courts ruled in favor of a local interest group, which argued that the new plants hadn’t factored in a number of major security concerns, cutting corners to speed toward reactivation—a view likely strengthened by the closure of one of the plant’s reactors soon after restarting because of technical failures.

And it’s not like Japan can just flip back on nuclear power plants. Especially with new security concerns, it’ll cost millions upon millions just to reactive a single facility, and it will then take an unknown amount of time to resolve legal challenges and the concerns of an understandably shaken public. These factors could arguably put the cost of a new nuclear facility on par with the development of some renewable energy facilities.

If that’s the case, then Abe and company are wrong. The future of Japan is not tied to the thorny issue of nuclear power. Not only could they match and exceed its potential with renewables, but they could do so without reactors’ murky safety and social baggage. Sure, a big push against vested interests and toward new major projects would be needed to get renewables revved up. But Japan managed that sort of paradigm shift in the 1960s with its first nuclear plant. It should be even easier to achieve with geothermal, solar, and wind facilities, especially with so much popular desire for a nuclear alternative. Perhaps Abe’s right in a way and Japan does need nuclear power to get back on economic track for now—but even if that is the case, it should just be a temporary step on the road to building out infrastructure for a renewable future.

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