After 8 years, the Fukushima disaster still casts its shadow on Japanese politics. Opinion polls show general opposition to any suggestion of expanding nuclear energy. Did the Fukushima disaster radically shift energy policy for the best?
Join Timothy Langley and Michael Cucek as they discuss Japan’s energy policy since the 3/11 disaster.
Full Transcript below:
Tim: Did Fukushima kill the entire energy policy of Japan? Don’t forget to hit like, subscribe and share. Hi, everyone: welcome back to Tokyo on Fire. Today is March 19th 2019. Today, we’re going to talk about nuclear energy, the policy here in Japan. Michael, what in the heck is going on?
Michael: Well in this case, I was really surprised at the build-up up to the March 11th anniversary of the tsunami and then the nuclear accident. I thought eight years on they’re just gonna let it go, they’re gonna have a few things on television commemorating… no! It was incessant and it was constant, it was an overbearing presence and I was saying “wow this has really changed the psychology of people regarding the entire industry, the entire concept of nuclear power in ways that I really just, even though I remember, not quite sure that I really understand”.
Tim: Before the incident of 3/11, eight years ago, nuclear energy provided about a third of Japan’s total energy.
Michael: Well, it provided 30% or so of the electrical power generation. There were, you know, close to 50 power plants that were either operating or could be operating. Now, we’re down to a handful. We have the ongoing cleanup that’s going on at the Fukushima site for the six reactors that are there: it’s going to cost a great deal more money. There’s a million tons of contaminated water on-site, the engineers say that it’s safe enough to release into the ocean but good luck telling other countries in the world that we’re going to release a whole bunch of tritium and strontium contaminated water into the ocean and the ocean is so big it will take care of and dilute… it’ll be fine. Try that at an international conference.
Tim: They say that they need about 90 ongoing reactors to reach parity with where they were before.
Michael: They have this plan. They had a bit of a plan in the mid-2000s about how nuclear power would be the answer to Japan’s contribution to climate change with and the reduction of fossil fuels and co2 emissions.
Tim: Which they’re committed to under the Kyoto Protocol, right?
Michael: Well, they were under the Kyoto Protocol and then reaffirmed under the Paris agreement. That’s fine, that’s great, that was the plan… Fukushima changed everything at least domestically. Nuclear power is no longer politically viable. It’s viable in so far is that there are people who are very interested in it, particularly those who work for very large corporations, amongst them those that build nuclear power plants. They have a tremendous hold on the Abe administration. Mr.Abe is the Keidanren Prime Minister. He really works with big business and big business has been decidedly pro-nuclear right, but the rest of Japan is decidedly against it. And, if you look at public opinion polls, you look at any kind of measure of what you know the public wants to have done in terms of energy, nuclear power is off, right off the table. Now, it’s never¡ really been on the table, actually, in terms of its its environmental safety, and because no one ever calculated in the costs of cleanup. Now, Fukushima as a disaster, the cleanup of that brings it front and center, the questions of what happens with long-term storage of radioactive waste; what happens to long-term storage of highly radioactive waste in a country with a lot of seismic activities. All of these things are now put into the cost equation. And in terms of energy in Japan, there was always a three stage criteria. Stage 1: a top-level continuous power, and continuous power means continuous generation and continuous supply of fuel. So that was priority one for all power, and that’s why we don’t have brownouts here. Have you ever experienced a blackout in this country? No! Except during a natural disaster when the power lines are actually physically down, but a missed generation problem no. The second issue is actually environmental impact and before Fukushima, nuclear had a really good story “we’re gonna take care of the climate change problem”. Now, it doesn’t have the environmental story and that’s priority two. And priority two is important only insofar as that doesn’t interfere with priority one. And then price was always third. You know, Japan’s electricity is extremely expensive but people live with it, in other countries like the United States or Great Britain, they would have a revolution for the electricity costs here. Here it was always priority three, so unless nuclear can sell environmental safety, it’s going to not be a part of the mix and that’s basically what’s happened. Renewables have gone from strength to strength, especially with the feed-in tariffs that was put into place by the Kan administration and now nuclear power is not only domestically untenable, it’s now international untenable.
Tim: I mean the export market for reactors has just fallen through the floor?
Michael: It’s just fallen through the floor. Vietnam stopped its reactors, Taiwan walked out of its program, Lithuania has said no, in Great Britain the project there has bankrupted Hitachi*. All of these projects have become disasters and they were such vital parts of the Abenomics story: the export of our technology, and especially after Fukushima, made it clear that there were not going to be any more nuclear power plants being built in Japan anytime soon.
Tim: The thing that strikes me, Michael, is that in Japan there are lots of free-flowing rivers for hydroelectric production. It’s an island, so there’s wave movements, there’s geothermal energy, there’s wind offshore, so how come technology hasn’t been dedicated to turning that into something that is more usable?
Michael: Everybody is now saying that, in the chattering classes, the basic issue is the issue of the nuclear Lobby holding the concept that if we go anymore into renewables will be endangering Japan’s energy security, meaning that, you know, sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. the sun doesn’t shine all day, sometimes you will have interruptions, you won’t have wave action, we need to have a steady source of power. And the Abe administration, not bought into it, they have put forward that as the argument that nuclear has to be part of the base. The problem is where are you going to build the plant. Now, Fukushima has absolutely poisoned not only its area but every other part of the country. There is no community that will say yes right to any of these projects, so the Abe administration is committed through its relationship to big business to promote nuclear power at the same time that it cannot possibly arrange the creation of a new nuclear power site. Those two things we’ve been working through them through the six years of Abe administration life and it’s starting to come. It’s not gonna come home to roost, he’s not gonna be lose his position over it, but this story this week the way that they just kept emphasizing that Fukushima was very important in the media is telling me…
Tim: That there’s another nail in the coffin!
Michael: There are plenty of nails now in the nuclear coffin.
Tim: Well, it strikes me as something akin to the population decline and the insistence of putting women more prominently into the workforce. There between a rock and a hard place.
Michael: That’s right and they have these dreams, they have these plans, they have these expressions, they have these incredible commitments, but the country is not behind them.
Tim: So, how did they get out of this situation that they can’t do nuclear, they need to provide some some source to 30%?
Michael: Yeah, but the issue is really what happens in the next election; what happens in the next six months; just muddle along, pretend that we’re pro-nuclear, allow more solar farms to be built, support wind farms offshore, but in a lackadaisical way there’s no national commitment in the way that there could be. If someone said “this is for our energy security, this is for our energy autonomy to make Japan a generating place. We want this”. There’s no way that that’s sellable under the current administration because at its onset, when it came into power, it promised. So nuclear power is to Abe what the wall on the border is to Trump, he can’t walk away from it and say “you know, I said that but it’s not doable”.
Tim: Nuclear power doesn’t look like it’s in the mix, we’re going to continue to follow it, and you should too!