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After March 11, Japan must reconsider its energy options

by Stephen Hesse

Viewed from abroad, there is no doubt that Japan is suffering an unmitigated disaster.

In my position as the director of an International Center at a Japanese university, I have been asked time and again by our partner universities overseas: “Is Japan safe?” Everyone wants reassurances that Tokyo is once again a secure destination for students wishing to study and live in Japan.

Perhaps for those of us in Tokyo the aftershocks are foremost in our minds, but overseas the primary fear seems to be of radiation from the crippled reactors in Fukushima.

Over a week ago, the French embassy announced that radiation poses no danger to those traveling to or living in Tokyo. Similarly, the U.S. embassy has lifted its travel warning for Tokyo, allowing dependents of U.S. Government employees to return.

An April 15 press release notes, “The U.S. Embassy looks forward to welcoming family members back to Japan.”

The United Nations World Tourism Organization, too, reports that there is “no risk to travel to and from Japan.”

The problem, though, is that everyone wants to be assured that Tokyo is safe now and for the long haul as well — which is something that no one can say for sure.

Nevertheless, at my university in western Tokyo, the spring semester is well under way. Orientation is over, classes have begun, and the campus feels the same way it does at the beginning of every academic year.

The cherry blossoms have fluttered down in the breezes, students are in full attendance, and the campus is lively with chatting and laughter. The only visible difference this year is the scarcity of foreign faces in the crowds.

Still, things are not the same as usual, internally or externally.

Since the March 11 megaquake, Japan has experienced more than 500 temblors registering magnitude 5 or greater. Some Tokyo residents are having bouts of quake vertigo, the sensation of experiencing a mild earthquake when none is occurring. This is, apparently, due to heightened anxiety and disruption of inner-ear function.

But the real quake vertigo is emotional, as many of us are experiencing mood swings that range from fear and anxiety to guarded optimism and even giddiness, delighted with the arrival of warmer weather, blossoming flowers and life in Tokyo approaching normalcy.

My own guarded optimism comes from knowing that individuals, communities and societies throughout time have recovered from the most devastating of wars and natural disasters and come though strengthened and more resilient.

But there, too, lies my apprehension. Humans have the most amazing ability to move beyond the past — to forget quickly and to allow the status quo to slip back into our lives, leaving us none the wiser despite tragedies we have overcome.

Over the last few weeks there have been several protests held in Tokyo targeting nuclear power in Japan, as well as calling for the shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The Hamaoka plant sits southwest of Tokyo on the coast near a major fault line that lies beneath the Pacific Ocean. The fault is expected to be the source of the next major Tokyo-area quake in the near future.

The gatherings attracted protesters of all ages, but the numbers were below what I expected. In a metropolitan area with tens of millions of residents who are now keenly aware of the dangers posed by nuclear power in combination with earthquakes, I expected tens of thousands rather than thousands of protestors.

My Japanese acquaintances didn’t share my disappointment, though. They reminded me that the protests were called on short notice and were not widely publicized, and that public protest in Japan is uncommon. Hence, they explained, many more people surely supported the protests but did not go to join the crowds.

I hope they are right, and I hope the silent majority in Japan coalesces and demands a thorough and wide-ranging public accounting of the Fukushima crisis and this nation’s energy future.

In this regard, Japan’s widely trusted media (there are tens of millions of newspapers published here both morning and evening) need a new commitment to investigative reporting and serious coverage of opinions, research and policy suggestions that originate outside the corporate-political power base that steers this country.

My own concern, as I mentioned in this column on March 27, is Japan’s tendency for shouganai (it can’t be helped) thinking.

As cynical as this might sound, I expect that the government and utilities will attempt to navigate past this crisis with apologies, bows and sincere-sounding promises, while making merely token efforts to consider safer and more appropriate energy alternatives.

For a nation perched atop the edge of the Pacific Rim of Fire, failure to explore and systematically adopt more benign energy sources will ensure that Japan remains a hostage to fear and danger for decades to come.

Very soon, however, simply by reducing power consumption through increased efficiency and heightened care, Japan could likely end the need for its oldest and most vulnerable nuclear reactors.

Over the past month and a half, Tokyo has already demonstrated that it can cut electricity use significantly. With homes, shops and companies being careful to conserve, power use is down and our quality of life has not suffered.

In fact, the city is calmer and quieter, and at night it looks less garish and glaring. Less energy use suits Tokyo just fine.

If all of Japan’s major cities follow suit, energy savings and efficiency could shape a new status quo.

Unfortunately, Japan has always considered itself energy poor because it lacks oil and gas deposits and has limited coal reserves. In an effort to increase energy self-sufficiency and, more recently, to cut carbon dioxide emissions, the government has placed its bets on expanding nuclear power generation, with more than a dozen new reactors planned for the next 20 years.

But the truth is that Japan is rich in alternative energy options and is ideally suited for benign, modular and localized energy-generation systems.

Harnessing the sun’s energy through passive solar and photovoltaic solar panels is already common here, but it is widely underexploited. Efforts to tap wind energy remain near-nascent despite countless potential sites both on and off these islands’ shores.

Of course there are complaints that wind generators are unsightly, noisy and lethal to birds, but beyond esthetics the other problems have been dramatically reduced.

In a country that is 70 percent mountains, and which has a heavy annual rainfall, hydropower is another natural option: not by damming rivers, but by using carefully sited microgenerators.

And in a country where hot springs abound, geothermal is yet another natural option for both heating and electricity generation.

Tidal energy as well should be explored in this nation of myriad bays and inlets.

And hydrogen, which can be used to fuel vehicles and as a means of storing and transporting energy, could be widely produced from water using electrolysis driven by any of the alternative energies mentioned above.

The truth is that there are numerous energy alternatives in Japan.

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of arguments made against their adoption — particularly by those who profit from the status quo of using fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In light of what we now know, however, Japan’s failure to seek and pursue energy alternatives will be tantamount to government negligence. All we will need is a group of dedicated and creative lawyers to make the case.

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com.