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.

Itsuo Inouye, AP
A protester holds a placard during an antinuclear rally in Tokyo on March 27 weeks after Japan's worst nuclear crisis began to unfold at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the northeast.

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.

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.

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What's more realistic?

Recent champions of renewables include Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of Softbank, who is to invest 1 billion yen ($12.3 million) in a new natural energy foundation.

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.”

Miyazaki says focusing on safety is a more realistic short-term goal for Japan's energy needs. He represents a portion of the Japanese population who are calling on power company executives to review and update safety measures to ensure that even plants subjected to quakes and tsunami of a size seen last month would emerge unscathed.

Government reassurance for nuclear power

The government, worried that Japan's economic future would be threatened without nuclear power, is attempting to ease public concern over safety. Given recent events in Fukushima, however, it will struggle to make a convincing argument in favor of building new plants.

The country’s 54 reactors provide 30 percent of its electricity, and there are plans to increase provision to 50 percent by 2030. The government has said that greater use of nuclear energy will better equip the country to reduce its CO2 emissions.

As the government struggles to convince the public that nuclear power is safe, plans for 11 new plants – including the world’s largest – have been put on hold.

The Japanese public is divided. According to a poll earlier this month in the Mainichi Shimbun, 40 percent of respondents said that the nation's dependence on nuclear power was unavoidable, while 41 percent supported cut in the number of plants. Only 13 percent said the plants should be permanently closed.

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Not in my back yard

The fiercest opposition to nuclear power has come from communities affected by the current crisis, and others who fear a repeat in their own backyard.

Now, attention is shifting to plants in other regions that, according to seismologists, are due to be hit by a powerful earthquake. Pressure is mounting for the immediate closure of Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka, which campaigners say is particularly vulnerable to earthquake damage.

“The Hamaoka plant is potentially even more dangerous than Fukushima,” says Mizuho Fukushima (no relation to the plant), leader of the Social Democratic Party of Japan. “It should be closed down now. Scientists say the region in which Hamaoka is located is due for a major earthquake. If we wait until that happens, it will be too late.”

Atsushi Kasai, a former laboratory chief at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, complained that Japan has yet to have a sensible discussion about the real risks inherent in nuclear power.

“When you talk about risk you need to have a qualitative risk standard,” says Mr. Kasai, who now works for the Radiology Education Forum. “When we talk about the probability of a nuclear accident it very small – about 10 times less likely than an airplane crash.

“But when you factor in the potential damage, the risk is incredibly high,” he says.

“The people of Japan have to decide what to do about our nuclear power plants. My view is that for the immediate future, we have no choice but to continue with things as the way they are."

If 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, Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial: “Now is the time for Japan to pursue electric power sources that are suitable for such an earthquake-prone country and adopt lifestyles that match the supply of electricity.”

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