Fukushima nuclear disaster haunts climate change debate in Japan

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 rise like a ship in a storm.

The lights went out, leaving Takakura and his colleagues in total darkness, as the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history shook the factory and its waste disposal building. But the worst was yet to come 40 minutes later when a four-story building-tall tsunami hit the shore.

The wave killed more than 15,000 people in northeastern Japan. He also knocked out the auxiliary diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi, leading to the merger of three reactors at the plant, 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 safety promises. “When I watch the news now, I still don’t trust what Tepco has to say,” he said.

His mistrust sums up Japan’s debate on Nuclear power. The government and the power industry continue to push to restart reactors but, due to strong opposition from the public and the courts, most of them remain offline.

As Japan faces the new challenge of reducing net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, after its arrival close to power cuts this winter, the country finds that it cannot live with nuclear power and cannot do without it.

“The Prime Minister has set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, but not everyone understands what this means,” said Masakazu Toyoda, president of the Tokyo Institute of Energy Economics 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 in front of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Namie, Fukushima, on March 6. Suga has set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 © JAPAN POOL / AFP via Getty Images

Over the past 10 years, every government review of energy policy has come to this same conclusion: even with a massive increase in renewables, there will still be a gap of around 40% in energy demand in 2050, which must be met by either fossil fuels or nuclear.

But no matter how many white papers the bureaucrats produced, they haven’t quelled visceral opposition from the public, who remember the terrifying days when the Fukushima reactors were melting.

A recent opinion poll for the national broadcaster NHK found that only 3 percent of the public want to use more nuclear power, while 29 percent are willing to keep it as it is. This is a little more than 10 years ago, but about two-thirds of the public want either a phase-out of nuclear energy or its immediate abolition.

The Fukushima site itself remains a monument to the disaster. Despite the vow to shut down the plant, experts said Tepco still did not have a viable plan to deal with the highly radioactive debris inside the stricken reactors. The government has controversial plans to discharge water contaminated with tritium of the site in the Pacific – a constant reminder of the disaster.

“We know it’s not safe, we know it’s expensive, we have no place to dispose of waste. . . that smart people always push for [nuclear power] is something I cannot understand, ”said Junichiro Koizumi, the Conservative Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, during a recent event with Naoto Kan, the 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’, which wants to protect its existing privileges,” he added.

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

The likely outcome is therefore that the Japanese nuclear industry will slowly wither away. “This is the biggest problem,” Toyoda said. “Nuclear engineers have already started working in other industries. It is not enough to operate existing reactors to maintain nuclear capability in Japan. “

Takakura said it suited him. “I am opposed to nuclear power. I think it’s dangerous, ”he said.

The disaster forced his local community close to the factory clear out and 10 years later he has not recovered. “There are very few people who have returned,” he said. “It’s all gone.”

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