Asia Program

Japan at a Nuclear Crossroads

Mar 12, 2012
By

One year after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, the country looks to be once again back on track as a longtime supporter of nuclear power. Backed by Japan's mighty power companies, the government seems eager to restart the dozens of nuclear reactors across the country that it has kept shuttered in the wake of the crisis. In December, nine months after the disaster, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared an end to the nuclear crisis, announcing that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's damaged reactors had been cooled down and stabilized. In February, Japan's nuclear regulators publicly assured the country that two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui, on Japan's western coast, could survive a combined earthquake and tsunami as large as the one that caused more than 20,000 deaths in northeast Japan in March of last year. And the government even went so far as to get the international seal of approval: The United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, sent in experts in late January who supported this assessment, as the Japanese regulators had expected. Now Noda is planning to visit Fukui to persuade the prefectural governor and other heads of local communities who have expressed concern about the safety of nuclear power to agree to have the reactors run again before the peak energy-intensive summer months.

But is this the path for recovery that the Japanese people want? Apparently not. In a survey conducted in June of last year, 74 percent of respondents said that Japan should phase out nuclear power with an eventual goal of abandoning it.

The picture on the ground is still grim. Due to high levels of radiation around Fukushima, about 100,000 residents have been forced to evacuate, tearing apart families and communities in what was once a close-knit, largely rural area. Even outside the forced evacuation zone, which extends a 20-kilometer radius from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, residents were ordered to vacate their communities.

Farmers who chose to stay -- despite contamination -- stack crops and hay on their land in vain, knowing they can neither sell nor destroy their produce because the government prohibits both trade and disposal.

Iitate is one of those dozens of communities. In this farming village of 6,000 residents, only seven families remain. Mayor Norio Kanno, who visited the United States in February, said, "Although decontamination work in the village has commenced, we presume that it will take two to three years before houses will be rid of radiation, five to six years for farmlands, and about 20 years for forests to be cleared. The villagers still have no idea when they can go home and settle back in."

One-hundred miles away from Fukushima, Tokyo's suburban population is also declining. The capital's eastern neighbor, Chiba, lost more than 7,000 residents last year, the first decline in modern history, according to the prefectural office. Anxious families -- particularly those with young children -- have left the metropolitan area for places as far away as Singapore, unable to contain fears over material released from the damaged Fukushima reactors.

Regulators and members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, are still investigating the true cause of one of the severest nuclear accidents in human history. Some experts -- including Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear technician -- suspect the reactors had been destroyed by strong tremors from the 9.0 quake and were out of control even before the tsunami swept away the backup diesel power generators needed to cool the plant's fissile material. A large question mark remains over the wisdom of continuing to run dozens of nuclear plants across the quake-prone archipelago.

So why the rush to re-embrace a nuclear future? The answers are money and the lack of any better option. Japan's government and industries have heavily invested in nuclear power since the mid-1960s, and as the 1970s oil crisis hit an economy dependent on energy imports, construction of nuclear power plants was accelerated in rural and coastal areas like Fukushima and Fukui.

Before the Fukushima accident, Japan's power companies operated 54 nuclear reactors, which provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity needs. Renewable energy accounts for only 1 percent, reflecting the government's and the utilities' reluctance -- in light of such a "successful" nuclear industry -- to develop solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal power. This preference for nuclear power led to a 2010 government plan to add 14 reactors to meet the country's projected energy needs in 2030, which would have brought the proportion of nuclear power up to 50 percent of Japan's energy mix.

During the summer of 2011, when the Fukushima plant was still smoldering, the power companies scaled back operations, reducing the number of functioning nuclear power plants to fewer than 18. To replace idle reactors, they brought back online half-retired coal and natural gas plants. A feared major power shortage did not materialize, partly because the government required factories and offices to cut 15 percent of energy use and urged people to save as much as possible.

In the following months, another dozen reactors were stopped, many for regular checkup and maintenance mandated every 13 months. Today, only two of Japan's 54 reactors are still functioning, and it is expected that by late April, no reactor will be operational as concerned local communities block restarts. The government warns that the country will soon face a dire power shortage this summer, a view echoed by utility companies.

Energy economics is not the only rationale for the push to restart the nuclear plants. There are powerful political forces at work, determined to keep the nuclear fire burning in Japan. They form a formidable complex often referred to as the "nuclear power village," representing utilities, bureaucrats, politicians, and academics.

Japan's 10 regional power companies have enjoyed a cozy and lucrative relationship with the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and have been granted monopolies over generation and distribution of electricity in their designated turfs. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plants, is the largest among them. In return, these power companies, their spinoffs, and the industry's organizations have hired hundreds of government officials upon their retirement from METI and other ministries. Currently, TEPCO employs the former chief of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency (a METI arm in charge of selecting locations for nuclear plants) and a former METI director as top advisors.

The industry has also made generous donations to politicians and nuclear scientists who have functioned as their cheerleaders. In 2009, roughly 60 TEPCO executives, from the chairman to nuclear power plant chiefs, collectively donated 6.5 million yen (approximately $80,000) in total to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that governed the country for nearly 55 consecutive years and promoted nuclear power. It was a drop in the bucket for one of the world's largest utility giants. Politicians, however, say what they really appreciate is not the executives' donations, but the company's bountiful purchase of their fundraising party tickets. On Jan. 1, the major national daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that the power industry provided 85 million yen (approximately $1 million) in research assistance over the past five years to two dozen nuclear scientists who served as members of the Nuclear Safety Commission, a supervising panel for government regulators.

But while the industry has this base of bought-and-paid support, a wary public is skeptical of the wisdom of building more nuclear power plants in Japan. Thus, manufacturers are looking for foreign customers to purchase Japanese-made reactors. The government recently decided to export two nuclear reactors to Vietnam, eyeing further sales to India, Jordan, Turkey, and Lithuania. Government and industry officials, however, think that to move ahead with this new business and win customers' trust, nuclear plants will have to remain operational in Japan.

Indeed, the Fukushima crisis has had far-reaching effects in other parts of the world, particularly Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, confessed that before Fukushima, she had been convinced that a major nuclear accident could not happen in technologically advanced countries. Having witnessed the disaster unfold in Japan, Merkel has turned a complete about-face, agreeing to repeal her decision to keep reactors running until around 2040.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Switzerland's government decided to phase out the country's currently operating five nuclear reactors by 2034. On March 1, Switzerland's Federal Administrative Court ordered a shutdown of the country's Muehleberg nuclear power plant by 2013, supporting local residents' concern that it might not be able to withstand a strong earthquake. The ruling may accelerate an exit of Swiss nuclear power.

In 2009, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced a plan to develop new reactors for the first time in two decades with assistance from France. More than 700,000 citizens, many of them supporters of opposition parties, countered with a petition that the government conduct a national referendum on whether to return to nuclear energy. In the referendum cast last June, more than 90 percent of voters supported staying non-nuclear, apparently shocked by the disaster in Fukushima.

Japan's public closely follows these developments, sometimes with a sigh of envy. Japan does not have a powerful green party, and demonstrations on the scale of those in Germany, where thousands of environmental and anti-nuclear activists took to the streets, are not common. And unlike Italy, Japan lacks a tradition of casting public votes to clarify people's aspirations.

Just two-and-a-half years ago, the Democratic Party of Japan came to power, dethroning the LDP, and promised to "beat back bureaucrats" by providing stronger political leadership. Naoto Kan, prime minister during the Fukushima disaster, was one of the strongest advocates of this anti-bureaucratic push. Frustrated by the slow responses of METI and TEPCO to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, he requested a shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, located 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, suggesting a repeal of Japan's long-term energy plan and announcing the idea of heading toward becoming a nuclear-free country. "Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy," said Kan in a televised news conference on July 13. "We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy." Immediately after this announcement, he was criticized for not having briefed his cabinet ministers on the idea. Later, he backed away, saying that phasing out nuclear power was only his personal wish.

But as Kan toughened his anti-nuclear stance, opposition forces in the LDP waged a fierce campaign against him, equipped with gossip -- such as that Kan had ordered a stop to the spraying of cooling seawater on Fukushima's overheating reactors at the height of the nuclear crisis. The gossip was presumably leaked by government officials and later found to be untrue.

Kan's increasingly anti-nuclear stance failed to win back his administration's popularity. In a desperate effort to survive a humiliating no-confidence vote brought to the Diet by the opposition LDP last June, Kan offered to resign once progress had been clearly made in recovery from the natural -- and man-made -- disaster. Kan eventually stepped down at the end of August, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan chose Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, reputed to have close ties with powerful bureaucrats, to succeed him as party leader and prime minister.

Some political analysts think Kan's downfall reflects the fact that Japan's bureaucrats remain the country's most powerful decision-makers, despite their role in drafting a critically flawed nuclear policy made painfully clear in Fukushima. But while Japan continues to muddle through a prolonged period of political uncertainty, bureaucrats have regained the upper hand, riding on a political in which where the public does not easily challenge the state.

There are glimmers of hope. The Japanese people are trying to rise from the ashes of the "nuclear safety myth" that they were led to believe through the media blitz carried out by the government and utilities for decades. Their anger and frustration has sparked activism rarely seen in Japan. Thousands of mothers purchased affordable radiation detectors and now check for radioactive materials in their houses, as well as at their children's schools and playgrounds, apparently in mistrust of the data released by the government and utilities. In Tokyo and Osaka, tens of thousands of signatures have been collected to petition the two metropolitan governments to hold a referendum on whether Japan should maintain nuclear power. And lawyers -- who filed suits across the country on behalf of concerned local residents demanding the government not permit the construction and operation of nuclear plants, to no avail -- are now considering repeating the same efforts, expecting judges to be more receptive. Meanwhile, heads of local governments that host nuclear plants are distancing themselves from lucrative but politically dangerous subsidies given by the state. In a meeting with the minister in charge of nuclear power, the mayor of Tokai, a town that hosts the Tokai Daini nuclear power plant, which stands only 80 miles northeast of Tokyo, even demanded that the town's reactor be scrapped.

Nearly 67 years have passed since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In postwar Japan, the anti-nuclear movement simply called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons -- not nuclear energy -- at least until the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States. Toshiyuki Tanaka, a history professor at Hiroshima City University's Hiroshima Peace Institute, explains in a recent article that Japan accepted nuclear energy as it was hopeful that the peaceful use of deadly power would redeem the horrible experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With this expectation totally discarded after the Fukushima disaster, a majority of the Japanese people are falling in line with the idea that nuclear power is simply too dangerous to live with. But they are also well aware that their choices are limited, with few fossil fuel resources and an underdeveloped renewable-energy sector to take up the slack. Nonetheless, most seem to share Kan's about-face. "I changed my thoughts on nuclear power on March 11, 2011 [from promotion to restraint]," said Kan. "Thinking about ways to deal with the tremendous risk and costs of a major accident, it would be the best not to depend on nuclear power. Not having nuclear power plants would be the paramount safety."

As Japan stands at a critical juncture in determining its future, the Japanese people have much to do if they hope to turn the tide and move toward a non-nuclear nation.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.com

Experts & Staff