Fukushima meltdowns set nuclear energy debate on its ear


Second Of Five Parts

The Fukushima nuclear crisis changed the national debate over energy policy almost overnight.

By shattering the government’s long-pitched safety myth about nuclear power, the crisis dramatically raised public awareness about energy use and sparked strong antinuclear sentiment.

And as the government gropes for a new long-term energy strategy, intense debate both at the political and public level is expected to take place over whether Japan should end its reliance on atomic power just as Germany has vowed to do.

“Energy policy discussions within the government are no longer just about nuclear power,” said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and a long-time foe of nuclear power.

Before March 11, the government and media had generally ignored the voices of alternative energy advocates, he said. But the disaster poisoned the favorable environment for the pronuclear bureaucracy and all of the nation’s reactors may find themselves idle in the coming months — at least temporarily — if politicians fail to ease Japan’s boiling anitinuclear sentiment.

As of Dec. 25, only six of the nation’s 54 reactors were running. But even these will be halted by spring for scheduled inspections, bringing electricity supplies to dangerous lows.

Even if the reactors pass their inspections, the government may have a hard time restarting them because doing so requires the consent of the municipal and regional governments hosting them. This is something local-level politicians are now very sensitive about because the risk of voter backlash is much higher in the wake of Fukushima.

Media polls also suggest that voters have become more amenable to the long-term goal of ridding the nation of its atomic plants.

A June 11-12 Asahi Shimbun poll found that 74 percent of 1,980 respondents answered “yes” to whether Japan should gradually decommission all 54 reactors and become nuclear-free.

The Fukushima-ignited sentiment has prompted the government to start toning down the nuclear-focused energy plan aired in June 2010.

The original plan called for raising Japan’s nuclear power ratio to 53 percent of all energy sources from 30 percent now by building 14 new reactors by 2030.

Last May, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that he planned to scrap the 2010 energy policy and declared at the Group of Eight summit in France that Japan would boost its dependence on natural renewable energy sources to 20 percent from 10 percent.

Kan’s shift away from atomic power drove home to the pronuclear bureaucrats at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that they would need to drop their goal of building new nuclear plants by 2030, recalled Banri Kaieda, who served as the chief of METI from last January until September. The powerful trade ministry has been the main promoter of nuclear power for decades.

Ironically, Japan’s pledge to fight global warming by cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels had been a strong tailwind for pronuclear forces in the bureaucracy.

“Before March 11, I myself had thought nuclear power is essential because the government had made a pledge under Prime Minister Hatoyama to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent,” Kaieda said, referring to Kan’s predecessor.

But the March 11 crisis changed everything and forced METI to explore more ways to develop renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

The ministry launched an advisory committee of experts in October whose recommendations will be reflected in the new energy plan.

“The current Cabinet is bent on reducing dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible. Whether it will be zero is going to be a big point of debate,” METI Minister Yukio Edano told members of the panel Dec. 12.

Kaieda, however, still feels the ministry officials are resisting the total abolishment of nuclear power as advocated by many antinuclear activists in light of the Fukushima disaster.

Iida of ISEP, who is a member of the advisory committee, is also concerned. He suspects more than half of the 25 members of the METI-chosen and -appointed members are nuclear experts and pronuclear scholars.

“There are people who still shamelessly stress that nuclear power is important, and those people are part of the core of the decision-making process” for energy policy, Iida said.

He is of the opinion that Japan should aim to eventually become nuclear-free by focusing on energy conservation and renewable energy sources.

Japan has made progress since March 11 to promote renewable energy, Iida said.

The Diet in July passed a bill that the Kan Cabinet submitted that requires utilities to buy excess electricity from private power generation systems, including corporate and individual.

Under the new law, the government sets the purchase prices of the excess power. European countries have similar arrangements that have been greatly effective in promoting renewable energy for power generation, Iida said.

Satoru Tanaka, chairman of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan and another advisory committee member, also said Japan should increase use of renewable energy, given the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis and the shift in public sentiment away from nuclear power.

But Japan should keep a certain amount of its nuclear power plants running and continue nurturing young researchers and engineers in the field to ensure there remain plenty of skilled workers in the field, Tanaka stressed. Japan will still have to safely operate those reactors not facing immediate decommissioning for decades to come before they are all out of the picture, he said.

One thing both pronuclear and antinuclear activists agree on is that there is virtually no chance any new reactors will be built in the foreseeable future.

But the nation also has a long way to go to decommission all the nuclear plants and boost the use of renewable energy sources.

Kaieda said both sides should end to their long-standing, all-or-nothing ideological tactics and engage in constructive dialogue on the nation’s energy future.

“We really should avoid an ideological struggle between the pro and anti sides,” said Kaieda.