Fukushima nuclear disaster haunts Japan’s climate change debate

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 heave like a ship in a storm.

The lights went out, leaving Takakura and his colleagues in pitch darkness, as the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history rocked the plant and its waste disposal building. But worse was to come 40 minutes later when a tsunami the height of a four-storey building rushed over the shore.

The wave killed more than 15,000 people in north-eastern Japan. It also knocked out the auxiliary diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi, leading to the meltdown of three reactors at the plant, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.

Takakura worked on the clean-up effort, but 10 years on he still feels betrayed by the safety promises of operator Tokyo Electric. “When I look at the news now, I still don’t trust what Tepco have to say,” he said.

His distrust encapsulates Japan’s debate about nuclear power. The government and the electricity industry are still pushing to restart reactors but, because of strong opposition from the public and the courts, most of them remain offline.

As Japan confronts the new challenge of cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, after coming close to power cuts this winter, the country is finding that it cannot live with nuclear power and cannot manage without it.

“The prime minister has set the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 but not everyone understands what that means,” said Masakazu Toyoda, chair of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo and a member of the government’s advisory committee on energy policy.

“Even with nuclear it is not easy,” he said. “In my view, without nuclear it is close to impossible.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a memorial dedicated to victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Namie, Fukushima
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a memorial dedicated to 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

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

But no matter how many white papers the bureaucrats produce, they have not eased the visceral opposition of the public, who remember the terrifying days when the Fukushima reactors were melting down.

A recent opinion poll for national broadcaster NHK found that only 3 per cent of the public want to use more nuclear power, while 29 per cent are willing to keep things as they are. That is slightly higher than 10 years ago but about two-thirds of the public want either a gradual phaseout of nuclear power or its immediate abolition.

The Fukushima site itself remains a monument to the disaster. Despite vowing to decommission the plant, experts said Tepco still had no viable plan to handle highly radioactive debris from inside the stricken reactors. The government has controversial plans to release tritium-contaminated water from the site into the Pacific — a constant reminder of the disaster.

“We know it’s not safe, we know it’s expensive, we don’t have any place to dispose of the waste . . . that smart people still push for [nuclear power] is something that I cannot comprehend,” said Junichiro Koizumi, the conservative prime minister from 2001 until 2006, at a recent event with Naoto Kan, the Democratic party prime minister at the time of the disaster.

Reaching 100 per cent renewable energy is perfectly possible, said Kan, and only vested interests kept nuclear alive. “The forces that continue to promote nuclear power are the ‘nuclear village’, wanting to protect their existing privileges,” he added.

Opposition from local mayors and prefectural governors, or from campaigners filing injunctions, means only nine out of Japan’s 60 nuclear reactors have restarted. For all the government’s repeated assertions that nuclear power was essential, officials said that they had no plans for legislation that would halt these relentless local battles.

The likely outcome, therefore, is that Japan’s nuclear industry will slowly wither away. “That is the biggest problem,” said Toyoda. “Nuclear engineers have already started working in other industries. Just operating existing reactors is not enough to keep nuclear capability in Japan.”

Takakura said that was fine with him. “I’m opposed to nuclear. I think it’s dangerous,” he said.

The disaster forced his local community near the plant to evacuate and 10 years on it has not recovered. “There are very few people who have returned,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long added to this report.