On Friday 11 March 2011, a tsunami knocked out emergency generators at Fukushima Dai-Ichi, resulting in melt-downs in three of six reactors, covering the countryside in eastern Honshu with radiation. Some isotopes were short-lived, others will be around much longer. Seven and a half years later, an endless torrent of sea water continues to be pumped into the damaged cores to try to keep them cool with no safe options for disposal or preventing leakage into the biosphere. Some of Japan’s most productive pastoral land around the reactors has been permanently poisoned against future use.
Japan’s nuclear power industry suffered a body blow. Many outside observers predicted that with its inventiveness and industrial agility the country would ditch nuclear power generation in favour of renewables. Has this happened, or is it likely to?
Observations I made in October 2018 – travelling on the Shinkansen train between Tokyo and Osaka, on slower local trains between Kyoto and Kanazawa, and on a bicycle around the Nōtō Peninsula on north-eastern Honshu – indicate the process has already begun. Numerous wind turbines and solar farms occupy agricultural land. Rice land sacrificed to some of these installations has been replaced in other locations by larger new paddy fields meticulously sculptured by teams of surveyors and fleets of bull dozers.
The Hokuriku Electric Power Company’s twin-reactor complex we passed on our bicycles at Shika in Ishikawa Prefecture has been shut down since Fukushima. The complex is overlooked on its north-eastern quadrant by an extensive wind farm, and is protected by a large concrete sea wall against tsunamis to the west. Notwithstanding the wall, the complex may be permanently de-commissioned because the Nuclear Regulatory Agency has discovered active fault lines beneath its boiling water reactors. Similar safety concerns apply to many other reactor complexes around the country. Many prefectural governments and most of the public oppose re-starts.
Meanwhile, corporate investment in Japan continues to expand existing hydro power plants and to build more wind turbines and photo voltaic farms from a very low pre-Fukushima base. Experiments continue to find the best ways to increase generating power from geothermal sources, bio-waste, tidal generators, and floating wind and photovoltaic farms along Japan’s coast.
Japan avoided extensive power outages in the summer following the Fukushima catastrophe (a notoriously heavy electricity consumption period when the public stay indoors and watch baseball with their air conditioners going full blast). A massive switch to coal and oil compensated for shut-down reactors, helped by a wide-spread voluntary reduction in power usage by the public – home air-conditioners were disconnected and businessmen went to darkened offices in coatless open-necked shirts. No country could have done it better.
Reversion to hydrocarbons for electricity has played havoc with Japan’s undertaking to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to reduce its 2030 GHG emissions by 26% below 2013 levels, but the government remains confident that it can still meet its targets through a mix of renewables and re-starting some of its 54 nuclear power reactors.
With this in mind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry introduced an energy plan in 2015, the core of which is nuclear energy and the expansion of renewables. He introduced a feed-in tariff to the power grid from renewable sources, but allowed utilities to refuse compensation when they received too much renewable power to maintain profitability. This has occurred with utilities in Kyushu and Hokkaido.
So how has Abe’s plan going to resurrect nuclear reactors? The figures are rubbery, but at present at least three reactors have been re-started – Kyushu Electric Power Company’s Sendai Units 1 and 2 in August and October 2015, and Shikoku’s Ikata 3 in Ehime in August 2016. Takahama 3 and Takahama 4 of the Kansai Electric Power Company were also re-started in 2016, but shut down again when technical faults were discovered. Other power companies are bidding to re-start, particularly the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owners of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi and Dai-Ni complexes. TEPCO also owns seven reactors at Kashiwazaki Kariwa collectively generating 8,000 MW on the Japan Sea coast in Niigata Prefecture. Kashiwazaki Kariwa was shaken by earthquakes in 2007 as well as the quake that caused three of its reactors at Fukushima Dai-Ichi to melt down in 2011, but this has not deterred its TEPCO owners from wanting to re-start it.
Japanese researcher Kae Takase provides figures that confound any possibility of a rapid Japanese transition away from hydrocarbons. She predicts a gradual increase in renewables from a base-line of 5% in 2013 to 14% by 2030. Over the same period, gas will fall from 23 to 18%, oil from 47 to 32%, but, stubbornly, coal will remain at around 25%. Her research is in a special report, Japan’s Energy Policies after Fukushima, published in 2017 by Peter Hayes’ Nautilus Institute.
Takase sums up the situation by observing that Fukushima has caused widespread public antagonism towards nuclear power extending to some politicians and economic leaders, but this will not deter Abe and his government from pressing on to re-open reactors. The situation will become increasingly complex as selective feed-in tariffs are sustained, and telecommunications and electric appliance companies join an industry previously strictly controlled by nine vertically-integrated utilility companies on mainland Japan. (There is a tenth nuclear power company in Okinawa).
My view is that the nuclear power industry in Japan is unlikely to recover. Renewables will inexorably expand their share of the electricity market as prices become cheaper and storage technology improves. But the uncertainty surrounding Japan’s energy future will not deter Hitachi and Japan’s other nuclear companies from continuing to compete internationally for dwindling opportunities to build reactors abroad.
Nor will it deter Australian enthusiasts from enthusiastically spruiking nuclear power in Australia. On 1 November 2018, for example, the Citizens’ Electoral Council of Australia in a media release ‘Nuclear Game Changer for South Australia’, recommended the construction of reactors on Eyre Peninsula to provide power for the national grid and a de-salination plant. It also quote a dodgy report that the Fukushima reactors were now ‘safe’, claiming the writer actually visited the reactor ‘core’ (singular), and that radiation in the prefecture is again below levels that could cause harm to humans. They won’t stop trying.
Richard Broinowski is the author of Fallout from Fukushima (Scribe 2012)