A nuclear power state of emergency issued by the government on the day of the March 11, 2011, Fukushima nuclear disaster has yet to be lifted. Eleven years on, the nation is still reeling from the catastrophic damage to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant caused by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami it generated.
Another nuclear crisis could threaten the very survival of this island nation. Furthermore, no solution is in sight with regard to the massive problem of how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.
In spite of this, there are rising calls to expand the use of nuclear energy as part of policy efforts to tackle global climate change. It is possible to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint without depending on nuclear power generation. A return to a reliance on nuclear power driven by images of clean energy through nuclear power generation could create potentially serious problems in the future. As memories of the Fukushima disaster begin to fade, Japan needs to reaffirm its commitment to weaning itself from dependence on nuclear power.
LACK OF DEBATE A NO-NO
Last year, the government announced a climate policy target of slashing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 46 percent from fiscal 2013 levels during the period up to fiscal 2030. A longer-term goal of achieving carbon neutrality, or net zero carbon dioxide emissions, in 2050 has been codified into law. The government also revised its Basic Energy Plan. But these steps have not prompted serious debate on the future of nuclear power generation. The basic plan calls for a maximum possible expansion of the use of renewable energy and lowering the nation’s dependence on nuclear power as much as possible. But the government is showing few signs of a serious commitment to tackling this policy challenge.
In the meantime, many politicians and business leaders have issued calls to restart idled nuclear reactors, citing policy imperatives such as carbon emission reduction, stable power supply and energy self-sufficiency. The argument for ramping up nuclear power generation was also bolstered by the European Union’s decision to regard atomic energy as a means to stem global warming under certain conditions.
The government’s new “clean energy” initiative proposed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to include measures to promote research in small modular reactor and nuclear fusion technology.
While trying to fuel expectations for new technologies that have yet to be developed, the government has failed to come up with a straightforward response to a controversial proposal from the industry to bolster the role of nuclear energy by building new reactors and expanding or rebuilding existing facilities. The government should not be allowed to gradually return to expanding nuclear power generation without going through the bona-fide process of winning public support. The process demands public input after offering specific and detailed information about the benefits and risks of nuclear power generation and explaining the government’s policy.
Proponents say nuclear power plants do not emit CO2 while generating power and point out that light-water reactor technology is well established. But the same argument can also be applied to clean energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power. Power generation using these energy sources does not emit CO2 and is based on well-established technology.
HUGE POTENTIAL OF RENEWABLE ENERGY
Some experts say Japan’s installed capacity of photovoltaic power generation per unit area of flat land is already among the highest in the world. They also point out that Japan is not rich in shallow coastal waters suitable for offshore wind power generation.
But renewable power generation has the potential to provide as much as double the amount of Japan’s annual power supply only with economically viable facilities in suitable areas, according to an estimate by the Environment Ministry. The Renewable Energy Institute and environmentalist groups have separately estimated it will be possible to achieve the government climate policy goal for fiscal 2030 without nuclear power and attain carbon neutrality in 2050 without nuclear or thermal power generation.
Renewable energy has enormous potential.
Take solar power, for instance. Solar panels have been installed in about 10 percent of detached homes in Japan. If this ratio is raised to 20 percent, 13 gigawatt worth of additional power would be produced, according to Hiroshi Segawa, a professor of energy and environment at the University of Tokyo. Converting half of abandoned farmland into solar farms would add 95 gigawatts, which is equivalent to the amount of electricity generated by dozens of 1-gigawatt nuclear reactors.
The government should not stick to its unrealistic Basic Energy Plan, which calls for raising the share of nuclear power to 20-22 percent of the nation’s total power output in fiscal 2030. Meeting the target will require sharply increasing the number of reactors in operation.
The conventional argument that nuclear power is economical has also become far less convincing. The costs of power generation in 2030 will be in the 8-yen (6.7 U.S. cents) to upper 11-yen range per kilowatt hour for solar power for businesses and the upper 11-yen range or higher for nuclear power, according to industry ministry estimates.
The cost of offshore wind power generation is projected to be in the lower 26-yen range in 2030. But the cost could become lower. In bidding for contracts to operate wind power plants off Akita and Chiba prefectures held at the end of last year, a group of companies led by trading giant Mitsubishi Corp., which operates many offshore wind farms overseas, emerged victorious. The group won the bidding by offering to sell electricity generated at these facilities to electric utilities at prices ranging between 11.99 yen and 16.49 yen per kilowatt hour.
Japan will be left behind in the global race toward a cleaner energy future if it fails to move quickly to develop renewable energy technologies and improve operational efficiency.
AFTERMATH OF 3/11 SHOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN
Although solar and wind power generation is susceptible to prevailing weather conditions, the problem can be overcome simply with power storage facilities and improving the way the power grid operates. Japan has the world’s largest number of patents related to renewable energy technologies. It is time for Japan to capitalize on this reservoir of intellectual resources to stoke economic growth.
A system has been established to allow municipal governments to expand the use of renewable energy within local communities through consultations with local residents. Since this approach requires close attention to the impact of disaster preparedness strategies as well as geographical features and eco-systems within the targeted communities, the Environment Ministry ordered a reassessment of the environmental impact concerning a number of plans to build huge solar farms. It has also taken a tough stance toward plans that could increase the risk of a disaster.
Renewable energy is also advantageous from the viewpoints of energy self-sufficiency and disaster preparedness. Renewable energies are power resources that are developed entirely on an at-home basis. Storing power generated by such distributed energy sources within communities would serve as insurance against disruptions in the grid or power plants due to natural disasters.
The failure of the government’s nuclear fuel recycling program also needs to be taken into consideration. The program is clearly bankrupt, given the government’s decision to scrap the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor program.
The first stage of the process, called “bunken chosa” (literature survey), to assess two municipalities in Hokkaido for their suitability to host a final disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants is now under way. But there is no prospect of a decision on a likely disposal site in the foreseeable future. Confirming the massively long-term safety of deep geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Japan, which is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, is a tall order.
Ever since the March 11 disaster, Asahi Shimbun editorials have argued for a swift shift to a society that is not dependent on nuclear power, stressing the importance of phasing out nuclear power generation.
We see no reason to change our position on this matter. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored afresh the risk of operating nuclear power plants. Serious nuclear accidents put a nation’s survival at risk and there is no foolproof way to prevent a disaster.
We should not forget that not so long ago even people in areas far from Fukushima were closely monitoring radiation levels with great anxiety on a daily basis.
–The Asahi Shimbun, March 22