Japan's nuclear energy debate: some see spur for a renewable revolution
Though Japan appears to be set on a short-term course that includes a significant role for nuclear power, the future is geared toward a revolution in renewables, say advocates.
The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has spawned antinuclear protests in Tokyo on a scale not seen for decades, raising hopes among activists that Japan's future is geared toward a revolution in renewable energy. Japanese media estimated that 15,000 people calling for immediate closure of all the country's nuclear plants marched through Tokyo's Koenji neighborhood on April 10, and more are expected for a similar demonstration this Saturday.Skip to next paragraph
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Although Japan's nuclear crisis has forced several countries to rethink nuclear energy, in Japan, where the industry has long wielded influence over energy policy, the emphasis for now is on improving safety, rather than abolition.
But a growing number of Japanese are concerned about the cost of continued investment in nuclear power and are attempting to push Japan toward replacing nuclear energy with renewables.
Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, says the traditionally close ties between the nuclear industry, politicians, and safety agencies – what he calls the Japanese “nuclear village” – have hidden the true financial and other costs of atomic power plants.
“On the outside we are told it’s very safe and cheap, but inside it’s rubbish,” he says. “That’s the nature of the Japanese nuclear community.”
The case for renewable energy
Japan’s nuclear program, he said, comprises aging plants and the perennial problem of how to safely dispose of spent fuel. Fukushima Daiichi has been in operation for 41 years, for instance, compared with an international average of 21 years.
Renewables, by their nature, don't cause a waste-disposal problem. Mr. Iida and antinuclear campaigners in Japan say it's feasible that clean energy and energy saving could combine to render the large-scale supply of power to the grid unnecessary.
Last year, power generation from renewable sources, such as wind, wave, and solar, overtook that produced by nuclear power worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011 issued by Worldwatch Institute – a trend that is expected to continue.
“Even if in Japan, solar and wind power are more expensive, nuclear needs higher safety standards and much higher liability coverage,” says Iida. “And we have yet to come up with an answer about where to store waste.”
Activists point to the recent success of energy-saving measures by businesses and households in Tokyo, which prompted utilities to lower the peak power-cut targets for this summer from up to 25 percent to 15 percent.
Iida's group proposes that nuclear power be eliminated by 2020, or reduced to just 10 percent of current levels by the same date. “In the long run, say by the middle of the century, all power needs could be met by a combination of renewables and energy conservation,” he says.
What's more realistic?
He won praise from Keiji Miyazaki, professor emeritus at Osaka University and a specialist in the study of severe accidents who remains skeptical of renewables taking control of Japan's energy needs any time soon. “That is a laudable thing, but I think it’s impossible for renewable energy to replace nuclear," says Mr. Miyazaki. “Nuclear power is indispensable for Japanese industry and for addressing energy growth and environmental protection.”