With the discovery of a 48th body on the slopes of Mount Ontake last week, the volcano’s eruption became Japan’s deadliest in 88 years. It’s impossible not to worry about an even bigger volcanic threat that lies just 145 km from Tokyo: Mount Fuji. All this has both seismologists and anti-nuclear activists asking anew whether the most earthquake-prone nation in the developed world should be restarting its 48 nuclear reactors, which have been offline since a record earthquake in March 2011 precipitated the Fukushima crisis.
I’m in the “no” camp, and not just because the public disapproves of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s coddling of the shadowy nuclear industry. My argument — one I’ve made before — is as much about Japan’s economic future as the personal safety of the 126 million Japanese I live among.
The tragic explosion at Mount Ontake showed the dark side of Japan’s geographic position, located along the so-called Ring of Fire. But it’s also a timely reminder that the country is more blessed than cursed when it comes to natural resources. As China and India choke on fossil fuels, Japan possesses an enviable mix of water, wind and, most importantly, geothermal resources to fulfill its energy needs.
Just ask Abe’s one-time mentor Junichiro Koizumi, who last week stepped up his campaign to end Japan’s addiction to nuclear power.
“Even experts say they never expected Mount Ontake to erupt,” the former prime minister told reporters on Sept. 29. “Earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions occur all over Japan, so it must not have nuclear power plants.”
Mount Ontake obliterated the nuclear lobby’s argument that seismic sensors and global positioning technology can predict eruptions that may threaten reactors. This one came out of nowhere — like a huge bolt of lightning, survivors say. Even if we knew that one of Japan’s other 100-plus active volcanoes was about to blow, Tokyo Electric Power or Kyushu Electric Power can’t move reactors or toss huge protective domes over them. All Japanese authorities could do is evacuate surrounding areas to lop a zero or two off death-toll figures.
It’s time Japan started heeding the advice of environmentalists like David Suzuki to go geothermal. In 2012, the Canadian geneticist and author joined the board of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation at the urging of Softbank founder Masayoshi Son (who has been investing big in renewable energy projects). Since then, Suzuki has rarely missed an opportunity to try and shame Tokyo into scrapping its reactors.
“Geothermal can be a huge source of energy and very quickly,” Suzuki told Bloomberg News in March 2013, on the second anniversary of the meltdown at Fukushima. “It is an opportunity being squandered in the drive to get the reactors up and running again.”
Back in 2012, Japan began talking big about a renewable energy push. In a report that year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said Japan had 539 megawatts of geothermal capacity operating, amounting to just a quarter of wind and roughly 14 times less than solar. In May 2012, the Washington-based Geothermal Energy Association said Japan could produce 23,000 megawatts of geothermal power. And then, in December 2012, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to power. So did Japan’s single-minded focus on nuclear reactors.
Geothermal is a relatively steady source of energy that doesn’t fluctuate like wind or solar, and the means to tap it are readily available. The roadblock is money, period. What the corrupt nexus of defense contractors and government is to America, the nuclear industry is to Japan. The nation’s gargantuan investments in reactors and related business sectors have created powerful vested interests that make the country’s farm lobby seem quaint. Further bolstering this institutional aversion to renewables is one of the key pillars of Abenomics — cheap domestic energy and tax revenues from nuclear-technology sales abroad.
Yet as Koizumi argues, a green-energy revolution would do for Japan what quantitative-easing, a weak yen and fiscal pump-priming can’t: create a new economic ecosystem that generates jobs, wealth and global esteem. Japanese celebrate their outdoor bathing culture, one fueled by an abundance of geologically active hot springs. And yet efforts to harness those huge underground energy reserves to produce electricity remain few and far between.
If Abe’s LDP had invested some of the billions it’s squandering on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on supporting a renewables boom, Japan’s future would be a brighter and more vibrant one. Instead, the prime minister is doubling down on old-economy reactors that are increasingly at risk from nature’s wrath. The eruption at Mount Ontake is a chance for Japan change course.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg columnist based in Tokyo.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.