The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident has sparked an unprecedented public debate on the nation’s energy policy, and prominent figures are weighing in.
Last week, two entrepreneurs, Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son and Globis Corp. CEO Yoshito Hori, faced off in a three-hour discussion on the topic.
The mobile phone service mogul’s position is that the Fukushima accident proved nuclear power is not viable and Japan should depend more on renewable energy resources.
Opposing him, Hori, whose company runs business management schools, argued that Japan, to avoid higher electricity bills and an unstable power supply that would prompt the nation’s manufacturers to move production offshore, should improve nuclear power plant safety and not hastily abandon reactors.
“It’s not a simple dualistic choice between whether to shift away or promote nuclear power. The energy policy has to view the next 100 years based on security, people’s lives, impact on the environment, feasibility and economic efficiency,” said Hori, who is from the Ibaraki Prefecture village of Tokai, home to a nuclear power plant and its own past man-made, and deadly, nuclear accident. Also, some of his family members work in the nuclear industry.
Hori said he admires Son’s new energy business focusing on renewable resources and supports the spread of such energy but questioned its reliability as a power supply.
Son is planning to found a new power-generating company with various types of renewable energy, focused on solar and wind.
If solar panels were to generate the power output of just one reactor, they would have to cover a space as big as the area encircled by the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, while wind power would take even 3.4 times more space, Hori said.
Also, “it would be troubling if shinkansen trains stop when it rains or factories cannot operate if there is no wind . . . nuclear power can keep supplying the same amount of power even at night,” Hori said. Utilities cannot rely on renewable energy power plants to generate electricity 24 hours a day, he added.
He also pointed out that if Japan hastily shifts away from nuclear power, it would increase electricity prices by up to 70 percent and thus damage industries. It would force manufacturers to move their factories out of Japan, he said.
Son, however, said the three beliefs about nuclear power — that it is stable, reasonable and safe — have collapsed with the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
He said the accident has been creating trillions of yen in damages in various fields, including agriculture and tourism, as well as the cost of decontaminating land.
“Considering these costs, I seriously wonder if nuclear power is cheap,” he said.
Hori agreed with Son on this point, saying the government should provide the real cost of nuclear power.
Son also questioned whether society truly needed atomic power to get by.
“We have often been told that nuclear plants supply 30 percent of Japan’s energy, so would you want to live in a world without that 30 percent? But is it really true?” he said, adding that only 16 out of the nation’s 54 reactors are currently in operation, and people are doing fine.
People are more aware of saving power these days, and as a result, the power demand has decreased about 22 percent on average compared with other years, according to Son.
He also said the government should promote power-saving policies like giving incentives to buy energy-efficient light-emitting diode bulbs. Replacing all the incandescent and fluorescent lamps with LED lights would save 92.2 billion kw annually, which is equal to the output of 13 reactors, he added.
Son said he himself is “a nuclear power minimalist” and is not saying Japan should immediately give up all reactors.
Japan needs to find out how much energy can really be supplied without nuclear power, and if it severely disrupts people’s lives and industries, a minimum amount should be used to fill that gap until new energy to replace it is found.
As for renewable energy, Son said it can be a stable source and countries like Spain already get 40 to 50 percent of their energy from wind and water power.
While admitting the cost to generate renewable energy is still high, “10, 20 and 30 years from now, costs for renewable energy generation will decrease with the development of technology” and by pushing such a policy, it will create jobs and raise Japan’s GDP as well, Son said.
The debate between the two men came about after Hori criticized Son on Twitter, accusing him of trying to use his political connections to run his new energy business. Son responded to Hori on Twitter last month, asking him to hold a public debate.
Because Son urged Prime Minister Naoto Kan to promote renewable energy and reduce nuclear power dependency, some accused him of trying to influence politicians to benefit his company.
During the discussion, Son loudly denied that intention, saying the renewable energy business won’t be that profitable, but it was imperative that someone take the initiative to strengthen the renewable energy industry in Japan.
If he was merely interested in making money, he would concentrate on his core business, Softbank, Son said.
He also said the energy business will be operated by a new company, which will be funded by Softbank and other investors, but “Softbank will not profit from this company for the next 40 years. I don’t want it,” he said.
Hearing this, Hori retracted his earlier statement that Son was trying to use his political connections for personal gain.
Despite their differences, both agreed that Japan should reorganize its power network, since the east and west use different power frequencies that prevent smooth exchange of electricity between utilities.
They also agreed that another serious accident at a nuclear power plant would put an end to the industry.