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Six Years After Fukushima, Much of Japan Has Lost Faith in Nuclear Power

Six Years After Fukushima, Much of Japan Has Lost Faith in Nuclear Power thumbnail

 

The Japanese government should consider a fundamental change in its current nuclear energy policy if it wants to recover the public’s trust in nuclear power, writes Tatsujiro Suzuki, Director of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University. According to Suzuki, staying on the current path will undermine Japan’s economic and political security. Courtesy of The Conversation.

Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones.

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 120 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy.

Energy Post



9 Comments on "Six Years After Fukushima, Much of Japan Has Lost Faith in Nuclear Power"

  1. Plantagenet on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 3:57 pm 

    Japan has shifted from nukes to oil, coal, and natural gas for their electrical power. As a result their CO2 emissions have increased. This was acceptable in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, as they had to get their power somewhere. But its a disaster for Japan to continue down this path, as their extra CO2 emissions will produce more global warming, more sea level rise, and ultimately more problems for Japan and the rest of the world.

    Cheers!

  2. GregT on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 4:03 pm 

    Hypocrite.

  3. rockman on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 4:29 pm 

    “The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation…”. Just from the general news stories I’ve read the problem WAS NOT due to poor nuke regs but a lack of common sense. First, building the plant of the shoreline of a country with a very long documented history of tsunamis. Second, deciding to build the plant on the coast with a long history of tsunamis and putting the emergency generators in the easily flooded basement instead of on the roof. Or at least put water tight doors on the basement. Had they built the plant inland in the hills…no big problem. Had they properly secured the generators…no melt down even if the plant had been hit by a tsunamis.

    The Japanese probably had 100’s of nuke regs. But whoever had design control made some foolish assumptions: like flooding possibility of a basement built on the coast which has a long documented history of tsunamis.

  4. Mark on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 5:09 pm 

    There’s are always a “fool” to cause “fool proof” safety systems to fail! In this case the fool was very poor location of the plants and little/no thought for the effects of a tsunami. I wonder where the US’s Fukushima will happen?

  5. Plantagenet on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 5:19 pm 

    The japanese aren’t fools—-they were well aware of tsunami hazards and the site for the nuke plant location was on top of a bluff that was higher then the maximum predicted tsunami. Unfortunately scientists have only recently come to understand that regional subsidence can accompany a major subduction zone earthquake. At Fukushima the subsidence was large enough to allow the tsunami wave to overtop the bluff where the plan was located.

    The problem wasn’t that the Japanese didn’t take tsunami hazards into consideration—the problem was that only after all the computer modeling was done and the planet was built did geologists realize that co-seismic subsidence was a problem.

    Cheers!

  6. HARM on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 6:56 pm 

    Well, they might have at least considered much safer Gen-IV molten salt reactor designs that can actually “burn” highly radioactive long-lived waste and turn most of it into short-lived less dangerous waste. But… sadly that ship has sailed and now the public is not likely to support *any* nuke plant design.

  7. GregT on Thu, 23rd Mar 2017 10:27 pm 

    plant-ocrite,

    “the site for the nuke plant location was on top of a bluff that was higher then the maximum predicted tsunami.”

    These Century-Old Stone “Tsunami Stones” Dot Japan’s Coastline

    “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the rock slab says. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

    “Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school,” 12-year-old Yuto Kimura told the Associated Press in 2011.”

    “The stones vary in degrees of repair, with most dating back to around 1896, when two deadly tsunamis killed about 22,000 people”

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/century-old-warnings-against-tsunamis-dot-japans-coastline-180956448/

    Sanriku, Japan 1896;

    On 15 June 1896, at around 19:36 local time, a large undersea earthquake off the Sanriku coast of northeastern Honshu, Japan, triggered tsunami waves which struck the coast about half an hour later. Although the earthquake itself is not thought to have resulted in any fatalities, the waves, which reached a height of 125 feet (38 m), killed approximately 27,000 people.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1896_Sanriku_earthquake

    Fukushima Daiichi was built on a site 10 meters above sea level.

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2011/07/13/national/fukushima-plant-site-originally-was-a-hill-safe-from-tsunami/#.WNSQexi-LMU

    You are full of shit, and a hypocrite.

    Cheers!

  8. Sissyfuss on Fri, 24th Mar 2017 12:37 am 

    So Plant, you’re saying the tsunami was Obama’s fault? You’re nothing if not consistent.

  9. Richard on Sun, 26th Mar 2017 10:03 am 

    Well, I think the current plan to decommission the stations is the best one, but building new ones should be avoided. The money, and lives isn’t worth it.

    I think in the future Japanese society will have to think about how they use energy, I know they supply a lot of good products, so energy is crucial to their economy.

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