Imagining post-nuclear Japan

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has sent shock waves through the political establishment by calling for the end of nuclear power generation in Japan. “There is nothing more costly than nuclear power,” Koizumi was quoted as saying during an interview with Tokyo Shimbun — something Japanese taxpayers are coming to understand very well.

Koizumi may be a late convert to the anti-nuclear movement, but he remains popular, persuasive and, on this issue, absolutely right. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might get some reactors back online in 2014, but he risks a powerful popular backlash because people are not ignoring the lessons of Fukushima. Koizumi is correct in saying that most politicians would go along with Abe if he stood up to the nuclear village and declared “Abenomics” meant tapping the green growth potential of smart, renewable energy. This is a sustainable and affordable low-carbon model that is far more suitable for Japan and developing nations than pricy nuclear reactors.

The old motto of the nuclear village — “safe, cheap and reliable” — now seems like a bad joke. It is hard to put a price tag on the overall consequences of the meltdowns at Fukushima and the ballooning costs of bailing out Tokyo Electric Power Co., but by some estimates it’s $100 billion and rising. There are still more than 100,000 nuclear refugees driven from their homes by the catastrophe. In early November, the government finally acknowledged that many can never return to their ancestral homes. Local farmers and fishermen have a deep hole to climb out of to regain consumer trust, while tourism has been hammered and faces tough prospects. Lingering stigma and health concerns are also exacting a stiff psychological toll on residents.

In the global lexicon, Fukushima is shorthand for nuclear disaster in much the same way as Chernobyl before it. It is indelibly tarnishing the Japan brand and will linger ominously despite Abe’s reassurances that the situation is under control. It doesn’t help that polls show that only 11 percent of Japanese believe Abe, and even Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose has suggested that Abe mislead the International Olympic Committee. The lesson of Fukushima, Mr. Abe, is not the need for better public relations.

Problematically, Abenomics relies heavily on nuclear energy. Abe wants to restart domestic reactors in order to lower fuel imports and, at the same time, reassure potential overseas customers of Japan’s nuclear plant and technology exports. It gets back to the unpersuasive argument that nuclear energy is cheap. It is relatively cheap but only if all the associated costs are excluded from calculations. But associated costs related to rigorous safety inspections, repair and maintenance (most utilities saved money on this by falsifying reports ), temporary and permanent radioactive-waste disposal, safety upgrades, more comprehensive and continuous training of workers, evacuation drills and the decommissioning of reactors are backend costs that boost the sticker price substantially.

The Economist magazine, like Koizumi, recanted and in a special report on nuclear energy argues that it is not commercially viable. Politically, however, the nuclear village is well entrenched in Japan, as it controls the commanding heights of national energy policy. This explains why Tepco is on government-funded life-support at the taxpayers’ expense.

Abe knows that Japan’s 50 viable reactors represent a huge investment and the vested interests in the nuclear village need reactor restarts to recoup their investments and pay off loans. Influential investors and lenders are fighting bankruptcy for Tepco so they don’t have to take a haircut. These vested interests are members of Keidanren, Japan’s most influential business lobby group, and have much to lose if the plug is pulled on nuclear energy and are counting on Abe to fast-track restarts and save their bacon.

But Koizumi’s awkward questions about Japan’s lack of a plan for permanently storing vast stockpiles of highly radioactive nuclear waste can’t be shrugged off; temporary sites are more than 70 percent full. Pro-nuclear advocates have a faith-based policy that something will eventually work out, but in the meantime we have a house without a toilet.

Are renewable energy sources the answer to Japan’s costly nuclear nightmare? Nuclear proponents argue that renewables can’t serve as a baseload source of continuous power like nuclear reactors (when not idled, as they often are for periodic safety checks). They also argue that solar and wind power are expensive and require vast amounts of space that make them unviable alternatives. Thermal plant advocates made similar arguments against nuclear reactors decades ago just as landline phone companies pooh-poohed the potential of mobile phones and skeptics were slow to wake up to the computer revolution.

It is time to move beyond nuclear energy, a flawed “miracle” technology of the 20th century, to 21st-century technology in renewables and radical efficiency improvements made possible by information and communications technology. And Japan is already doing so at breathtaking speed.

Since the introduction of a feed-in tariff system in July 2012 that provides incentives for investment in a range of renewable energies, Japan has brought online about three reactors’ worth of renewable electricity generating capacity, mostly solar. Anyone driving around depopulating rural Japan understands space is not a major constraint, and indeed renewable energy initiatives offer declining communities a lifeline. Decentralizing Japan’s power generation away from centralized nuclear plants prone to cascading disasters also enhances disaster resilience and explains why so many local communities are funding renewable initiatives. Innovations mean that Japan’s largest solar farm is now floating off the coast of Kagoshima and floating platforms now enable Japan to tap its vast wind power potential.

But the grid has to be modernized to tap the potential of renewables, and legislation now under consideration in the Diet might hasten the process by breaking up the utilities’ current monopoly and decoupling electricity generation from distribution. The key is spreading smart-grid technologies essential to managing intermittent sources of energy and reducing energy consumption, an area where Japan is a world leader.

Andrew DeWit, a Rikkyo University energy policy specialist, notes that ongoing smart-city projects in Kitakyushu and Yokohama demonstrate the vast potential of information and communications technology. Major Japanese companies such as Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Hitachi are betting big on smart-city projects at home and targeting megacity projects around the globe. It’s a huge potential market and Japan is well positioned to lead this green revolution. Japan is on the cusp of a breakthrough and, instead of squandering more money on nuclear power in an archipelago prone to major seismic events, it should incentivize investments in green technologies that offer enormous potential and greater disaster resilience. Koizumi reminds us what bold leadership looks like.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.