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Can Japan Go Nuclear-free?


Can Japan Go Nuclear-free?


On May 5, Japan shut down its last active reactor for maintenance, launching a nuclear-free era. CommonWealth Magazine visits Japan, investigating its ambitions to wean itself of nuclear power, and how much it will hurt.



Can Japan Go Nuclear-free?

By Ching-Hsuan Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 496 )

When Hokkaido Electric Power's Tomari No. 3 reactor in northern Japan was shut down for scheduled maintenance on May 5, Japan was without nuclear power for the first time since 1970. Such a milestone had not been expected so soon. Not even Germany, where the anti-nuclear movement is stronger and louder than anywhere else, has completely shut the door on this power source.

May 5, 2012 could one day go down in history, remembered not only in Japan but around the world. For on that day, Japan may have bid sayonara to nuclear power for good, even though it previously relied on nuclear fission to generate 27 percent of its electricity, even higher than in Taiwan, where nuclear power accounts for 19 percent of the country's power generation.

After the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 triggered the destruction of four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the future of the country's nuclear power infrastructure was in doubt. Public anxiety and fierce opposition have since prevented any of the other 50 nuclear reactors in the country from being restarted after going offline for mandatory maintenance.

Japanese authorities are trying to reactivate idled reactors in parts of the country expected to face power shortages during the summer, when electricity demand hits its peak. But if they do not succeed, and Japan makes it through the hot-weather months without electricity rationing, power companies will have a hard time justifying the need for nuclear power to a skeptical public.

Even as the final reactor in Hokkaido was being shut down, public opinion in Japan remained firmly opposed to nuclear power. The government is trying desperately, however, to reactivate some reactors, not only to head off summer power outages, but also to prove that they are still safe and viable sources of energy in the resource-poor country. The facility being targeted belongs to Kansai Electric Power Co., which supplies power to the major population centers of Osaka and Kyoto and faces a potential 16-percent electricity shortfall this summer. It sits in the relatively poor Oi District in Fukui Prefecture, which has been economically dependent on nuclear power.

Nuclear Power vs. Economic Survival

Because of Fukui Prefecture's relative poverty, local government tax revenues, the local economy, and jobs are all highly dependent on the Oi nuclear power facility, located on central Japan's northern coast about 60 kilometers north of Kyoto. People in Oi hope it can be quickly reactivated.

But further south, in Kyoto, Osaka and Shiga prefectures, public sentiment remains strongly opposed to reopening the Oi plant. When CommonWealth Magazine's team of reporters was in this part of Japan at the end of April, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Trade Minister Yukio Edano, and two vice trade ministers were touring Fukui and the other three prefectures, trying to persuade local governments and uneasy publics that reopening the Oi plant would be safe.

They had a tough sell, considering the rising momentum of anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Diagonally across from Kyoto's massive, modernistic train station stands a yellow building identified only by the characters for Kansai Electric Power. Outside the building on the sidewalk, simple tents lined on the inside with anti-nuclear slogans form the backdrop for an elderly person with a bullhorn yelling anti-nuclear appeals to people getting off work, as a succession of students and women sign their names to a petition.

This activity was part of a campaign called the "10 Million People's Action to Say Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants" backed by well-known singer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Nobel literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe. The protesters in Kyoto were determined to stay at it until Japan's final reactor was shut down on May 5.

But to communities that have long been dependent on nuclear power for their survival, the prospects of a nuclear-free future mean the loss of their economic foundation.

Nuclear Power Town Now a Ghost Town

To better understand the situation in Fukui, we rode trains through rice paddies, groups of cottages, mountains and icy forests to get to the town of Mihama, about 20 kilometers northeast of Oi and also home to its own nuclear power facility. Leaving the train station, we immediately felt a sense of desolation. Even at noontime, a noodle restaurant outside the train station, handed down over three generations, was empty except for us.

"It's hard to choose between safety and the economy. I hope everything will be over soon and the nuclear power plant will quickly resume operations," said the shy and worried owner of the noodle shop.

Mihama, home to about 10,000 residents, was pulled out of poverty by the nuclear facility, and until recently nuclear power and tourism were the only two pillars supporting the local economy. Since the Fukushima disaster, however, tourists have virtually disappeared, and the three nuclear power plants in Fukui Prefecture have stopped operating, turning Mihama into a virtual ghost town.

In the wake of Fukushima, Japan's nuclear power capacity utilization rate fell to a historical low of 23.7 percent. Then, as nuclear power plants around the country were shut down for safety checks, the rate dropped even further to 4.2 percent by March 2012. It could fall to virtually 0 in May.

Yet despite the loss of a major source of power in the country, Japan has been able to maintain a sufficient supply of electricity without the need for rationing except for a short period of time following the earthquake and tsunami. But as summer approaches, many wonder how Japan will be able to provide adequate amounts of power without the help of its nuclear power infrastructure.

Accelerating Green Energy Development

One of the possible answers may not please environmentalists.

Since March 11, 2011, Japan has maximized its fossil fuel power generation capacity, even reactivating old fossil-fuel power plants that had been deactivated. From March 2011 to March 2012, Japan's 10 regional power utilities increased fossil-fuel power generation by 26 percent. They burned 52.9 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas, up 27 percent from a year earlier, and even surpassing the previous record of 41.9 million metric tons burned in the year ending in March 2008 when electricity use was at its peak prior to the global economic meltdown.

The utilities also doubled their consumption of crude and fuel oil to 23.3 million kiloliters.

These initiatives led to a huge influx of energy resources that caused Japan to run a trade deficit in 2011 for the first time in its history. Japanese business daily Sankei Shimbun warned, "The country's wealth is disappearing at the rate of 10 billion yen every day."

But on the other hand, the Fukushima nuclear crisis and the public's anti-nuclear sentiment have also pushed the country to accelerate its embrace of alternative energies.

At the end of April, Japan's parliament passed a law mandating every one of the country's utilities to purchase solar and biogas power from individuals and small power plants, which should increase the supply of green electricity. But because the initiative will push the cost of generating electricity higher, electricity rates will be raised in August, costing each Japanese household an extra 100 yen (about NT$37), according to government estimates.

Aside from a massive addition of thermal energy from fossil fuel sources, Japan has also been able to maintain adequate electricity supplies without rationing power because of a nationwide effort to conserve energy.

Through conservation efforts and a reduction in manufacturing activity, Japan's 10 regional utilities sold 5.1 percent less electricity in the year ended in March than in the year before, the largest annual decline in history. Among the hottest products in Japanese consumer electronics stores are residential solar power systems from companies such as Kyocera and Sharp that sell for nearly 2 million yen each.

The Bane of Nuclear Power: Conservation

"We believe that if you conserve energy, you don't need nuclear power," says Wakao Hanaoka, a campaign manager with Greenpeace Japan. Hanaoka's family spent 3.5 million Japanese yen (about NT$1.30 million) to install solar panels, and he expects the investment to pay for itself in 15 years.

Another champion of energy conservation is Hiroshi Esaki, a professor with the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo. Esaki led the university in cutting its power consumption by 30 percent but said his motivation went beyond financial issues.

"The starting point for conserving energy was not saving money. The main goal was to safeguard the safety and health of students and faculty members on campus and preserve the quality of the educational environment," he says.

"Simply saving energy for the sake of saving energy is too passive and not much fun, and it won't necessarily be effective. If you approach it by trying to improve the efficiency of equipment, energy savings will come naturally," Esaki wrote in one of his books.

To help the university cut down on power consumption, the professor made use of LED lighting, high efficiency air-conditioning, sensors, smart meters, and green building materials. The key to the project, however, was centralizing the power system's computer servers and building a cloud computing platform that could process, analyze, store and apply information on power usage, helping energy consumption become "visible."

"It's actually fairly simple," says Esaki, pointing to a control panel. "Through this IEEE1888 system, you can clearly ‘see' electricity usage throughout the entire campus and get information in real time."

Even on a Sunday afternoon, Esaki is in his office, where the control system he developed displays electricity use for every space, and power switches can be turned on and off by remote control.

Less well-known but no less dedicated to saving energy is 53-year-old Sanae Nakamura, a resident of Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, who has won several awards for energy conservation. The petite, always smiling Mrs. Nakamura also stresses that the key to curbing power consumption is to make electricity use "visible" – so that households can identify savings and see the results of measures taken.

When we visited Nakamura at 8:30 a.m., she was just returning home from walking her dog. Though the ambient temperature in her home was about 10 degrees Celsius, she did not turn the heater on. Instead, she wore heat-generating clothing, rolling up her shirt sleeves and pant legs to reveal them hidden underneath. She also shared other simple ways she keeps warm: covering herself with a blanket when using her computer, or wearing a thermal apron when doing housework.

What perturb her the most, Nakamura confesses, are members of the media visiting her home and taking copious pictures of her energy-saving equipment, but missing the main point. "The key to saving energy is not the equipment you use but the way you think," she says.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a prominent lawyer who has actively opposed nuclear power for 15 years, is currently representing Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) shareholders in suing the utility's executives for 5.5 trillion yen in compensation for failing to prepare adequately to deal with the severe accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

"A power shortage or an accident, which is more terrifying? CO2 emissions or radiation, which is worse?" Kawai asks.

Any energy policy direction requires sacrifice. With green energy alternatives having yet to reach the mainstream, Kawai's questions not only reflect the dilemma currently facing Japan, but also energy development around the globe.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier