Fukushima nuclear disaster haunts climate change debate in Japan

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Ryota Takakura was working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, packing low-level radioactive waste into drums, when the ground began to shake and then heave like a ship in a storm.

The lights went out, leaving Takakura and his colleagues in total darkness, as the largest earthquake in Japanese history rocked the factory and its waste disposal building. But the worst was to happen 40 minutes later, when a tsunami the height of a four-story building swept over the shore.

The wave killed more than 15,000 people in northeast Japan. It also destroyed Fukushima Daiichi’s auxiliary diesel generators, causing three of the plant’s reactors to melt down, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.

Takakura worked on the cleanup effort, but 10 years later still feels betrayed by operator Tokyo Electric’s security promises. “When I watch the news now, I still don’t trust what Tepco has to say,” he said.

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His distrust sums up the Japanese debate on nuclear energy. The government and power industry are pushing to restart the reactors but, due to strong public and court opposition, most remain offline.

As Japan faces the challenge of reducing its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, and after nearly blackouts this winter, the country is discovering that it cannot live on nuclear power and can’t do without it.

“The prime minister has set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, but not everyone understands what that means,” said Masakazu Toyoda, president of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo and member of the government advisory committee on energy policy.

“Even with nuclear, it’s not easy,” he said. “In my opinion, without nuclear it is almost impossible.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a memorial for earthquake and tsunami victims in Namie, Fukushima
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a memorial for earthquake and tsunami victims in Namie, Fukushima on March 6. Suga has set himself the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050 © JAPAN POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past decade, every government review of energy policy has come back to this same conclusion: even with a massive increase in renewables, there will still be a roughly 40% gap in energy demand in 2050, which will have to be filled either by fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

But no matter how many white papers the bureaucrats produced, they did not dampen the visceral opposition of the public, which remembers the terrifying days when the reactors in Fukushima melted down.

A recent opinion poll for national broadcaster NHK found that only 3% of the public want to use more nuclear power, while 29% are willing to keep things as they are. This is slightly higher than 10 years ago, but around two-thirds of the population want either a gradual exit from nuclear energy or its immediate abolition.

The Fukushima site itself remains a monument to the disaster. Despite promising to dismantle the plant, experts said Tepco still had no viable plan to deal with highly radioactive debris from inside the stricken reactors. The government has controversial plans to release tritium-contaminated water from the site into the Pacific – a constant reminder of the disaster.

“We know it’s not safe, we know it’s expensive, we have no place to put the waste. . . that smart people are still pushing for [nuclear power] is something I cannot understand,” said Junichiro Koizumi, conservative prime minister from 2001 to 2006, at a recent event with Naoto Kan, prime minister of the Democratic Party at the time of the disaster.

Achieving 100% renewable energy is perfectly possible, Kan said, and only vested interests have kept nuclear alive. “The forces that continue to promote nuclear energy are the ‘nuclear village’, eager to protect their existing privileges,” he added.

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Opposition from local mayors and prefectural governors, or activists filing injunctions, has meant that only nine of Japan’s 60 nuclear reactors have restarted. Despite all of the government’s repeated assertions that nuclear power is essential, officials said they have no bills that would stop these ongoing local battles.

The likely outcome, therefore, is that the Japanese nuclear industry will slowly wither away. “That’s the biggest problem,” Toyoda said. “Nuclear engineers have already started working in other industries. Simply operating existing reactors is not enough to maintain nuclear capacity in Japan.

Takakura said it was fine with him. “I am against nuclear power. I think it’s dangerous,” he said.

The disaster forced her local community near the factory to evacuate and 10 years later they still haven’t recovered. “There are very few people who have returned,” he said. “It’s all gone.”

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