Good news and bad news out of Fukushima. First, the bad news: Anika Osaki Exum and Gabriele Ninivaggi join us to discuss the reaction to the treated wastewater release plan (China’s not happy). Then, Francesco Bassetti gets us caught up on the good news: There has been a boom in renewable energies there.
On this episode:
- Japan begins controversial release of treated Fukushima water (Gabriele Ninivaggi, The Japan Times)
- Fukushima locals worry about the ‘what ifs’ from water release (Anika Osaki Exum, The Japan Times)
- Fukushima water plan ‘complete opposite’ of recovery: former mayor (Anika Osaki Exum, The Japan Times)
- How a nuclear disaster turned Fukushima into a renewables leader (Francesco Bassetti, The Japan Times)
- After 3/11, an environment education rethink takes shape in Japan (Francesco Bassetti, The Japan Times)
- Japan is about to release 1.3 million tons of Fukushima wastewater. Should we be concerned? (Mara Budgen, Deep Dive from The Japan Times)
Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.
Shaun McKenna 00:09
Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. On Aug. 24, the Japanese government followed through on a plan to release treated water from the now notorious Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. While the plan had been given the okay from the IAEA, that's the International Atomic Energy Agency, not everyone is convinced. And, as the water began to pour into the ocean, so came an outpouring of protest, specifically from China, but also from groups here representing people who make their livelihoods from fishing. Beijing has now issued a ban on seafood from the entirety of Japan and public outrage at the plan in China has taken the form of angry phone calls to Japanese businesses and government institutions. On today's show, I'll be joined by environment writer Francesco Bassetti. He wrote a piece in this week's newspaper on Fukushima's big pivot to renewable energy sources. But first, Japan Times staff reporters Anika Osaki Exum and Gabriele Ninivaggi join me to sum up what happened with the release and how the world has been reacting to it.
Anika Osaki Exum 01:17
Shaun McKenna 01:18
Gabriele Ninivaggi 01:19
Hey Shaun. Good to see you, Anika.
Anika Osaki Exum 01:20
Shaun McKenna 01:22
Welcome back to you both. Maybe let's start with you, Anika. Two weeks ago, it was announced that the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the one that suffered the meltdowns in 2011, had started releasing treated water into the Pacific Ocean. This was because that water, which was used to cool radioactive materials, had been piling up in tanks at the plant — which are 98% full. Anika, can you recap this water release plan for us?
Anika Osaki Exum 01:48
Sure. So, there's about 1.3 million tons of water in the tanks. That's like 500 Olympic sized swimming pools. Each day, about 500 tons of treated wastewater is sent down a one kilometer long tunnel stretching out into the ocean off the coast of Fukushima. And this is going to happen for the next 30 to 40 years.
Shaun McKenna 02:08
Actually just a note to listeners. At the start of July, we had environment writer Mara Budgen come on the show to discuss the treatment process in more depth. I highly recommend going back and listening to that podcast episode if you're looking for a more detailed version of how this all works. But Anika, can you give us a brief rundown of the process.
Anika Osaki Exum 02:26
Yeah, so they're using what's basically a filtration system known as ALPS, which stands for the Advanced Liquid Processing System. The wastewater has come directly into contact with nuclear debris and this system is able to partially remove 62 radionuclides, at least to the levels that meet Japanese and international standards. However, it isn't able to remove two radionuclides: Carbon 14 and tritium. And tritium is the one that everyone seems to be talking about. So after it goes through ALPS, it's further diluted with seawater, and then it's sent down that one kilometer tunnel into the ocean. By releasing the treated wastewater a little at a time, Tepco, who is overseeing the process, hopes to dilute it as much as possible.
Gabriele Ninivaggi 03:13
If I can just jump in here real quickly. Japan, so far, has been very particular about how it refers to the water. So I think we should stress the distinction between shori-sui (処理水) — which is treated wastewater, and how Japan and other international organizations refer to what is being released — and osen-sui (汚染水), or contaminated water, which is the term that Japan uses to describe the water before it is treated, and also the term that China uses to describe the water which is released.
Shaun McKenna 03:40
Okay, so shori-sui is for the treated released water and osen-sui for the contaminated, untreated wastewater.
Gabriele Ninivaggi 03:47
Yeah, right. You have to be careful because actually, last Thursday, agriculture minister, Testuo Nomura, who is also in charge of fisheries, put his foot in his mouth when he slipped up and called the water osen-sui. He was scolded by the prime minister and had to make an apology after that in the evening.
Shaun McKenna 04:06
You have to stay on message, don't you?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 04:08
Yeah, you have to.
Shaun McKenna 04:09
Okay. Anika, you went to Fukushima after the release began. What did you see on your arrival?
Anika Osaki Exum 04:15
Yeah, so it was my first time in Fukushima and as an outsider and someone who was far from Japan when everything happened, I was kind of surprised to see the remnants of the 2011 disaster. There are a lot of homes still in rubble, abandoned businesses who didn't return. You know, local main streets are pretty sparse, especially near the plant. And, speaking to locals in the area, those who are in the fishing industry and those who aren't, a lot of them are saying, you know, the plan, the release plan, didn't take their desires and experiences into account. I also spoke to the former mayor of Minamisoma, Katsunobu Sakurai, who was mayor during the disaster and then of course in the following recovery efforts, and his town was hit hard by the tsunami and the after effects. His town was one of those that, while being pretty far in distance from the plant, was asked to isolate and residents were asked to stay indoors. So he gained global acclaim by putting out a video in the weeks following the tsunami asking for help.
Shaun McKenna 05:31
Yeah, I think I actually maybe remember that video. Minamisoma was one of those names that kept popping up in the news after the actual earthquake.
Anika Osaki Exum 05:40
Yeah, he said that what they experienced in Minamisoma, and in Fukushima as a whole, was something that really nobody else in Japan had ever experienced. And because of that, he believes the government and Tepco should be kind of bending over backwards to try and get the approval of the people in his town with regard to the release plan. And, he says that they're not on board with the plan yet, even people who aren't in the fishing industry.
Shaun McKenna 06:04
So is anyone in support of the plan?
Anika Osaki Exum 06:07
Some people are convinced that the plan is the only way to move forward or maybe they are resigned to the fact that this is the only way forward. A few people I spoke to said they just weren't sure what else could be done, including one 25-year-old who returned there for work after being evacuated. She said she felt like she couldn't have an opinion because while she feels like the release is inevitable, she knows local fishers will still feel the effects in terms of reputation, which could of course impact their livelihoods that they've built back up since 2011. Another rep of a local fishing co-op did agree to share with me just from the standpoint of a local citizen, saying he felt as though the work the local fisheries have done to regain trust and rebuild reputation is something that is going to go completely out the window. But at the same time, he feels like the release is unavoidable too, and instead, he wishes the government would continue looking for solutions in the times to come to potentially lessen the number of years that the release could take and to lessen the ultimate blow to local reputation and economy.
Shaun McKenna 07:06
Gabriele what is the government doing to try to allay these concerns?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 07:10
In terms of policy, whoever the government had earmarked a total of ¥80 billion to support the industry and tackle the fallout from reputational damage. But on Monday, Kishida announced extra subsidies of ¥20.7 billion to help the industry reduce its dependence on China and find new export markets. And that brings the total amount of aid to over ¥100 billion. That's over 670 million U.S. dollars.
Shaun McKenna 07:55
I didn't know Japan was so dependent on China, like at least with regards to the fishing sector.
Gabriele Ninivaggi 08:01
Yeah, actually China's the largest buyer of Japanese seafood, especially scallops and crustaceans. So the value of Japanese marine products exported to China and Hong Kong last year amounted to ¥162 billion, which is 42% of total sales overseas.
Shaun McKenna 08:20
How is the mood in the rest of Japan with regard to the plan? Is the public paying this issue much attention? Like, I noticed some embassies promoting Japanese seafood on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, like U.S. ambassador Rahm Emanuel and the staff at the Australian Embassy. And then like, the closest thing I can think of when it comes to this is the SARS outbreak that happened in China in the early 2000s, cases started popping up in Toronto. And at that time, there was this reluctance to eat at Chinese restaurants, but then Prime Minister John Christian made a show of eating at one of those restaurants to kind of dispel any rumors. Does this kind of political theater work in Japan?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 09:00
I personally think it's a highly symbolic move. And it's part of what a politician should do, especially when they promote such a controversial policy, which is obviously taking ownership for their actions and awards. So again, personally, I would have expected no less from him and other Cabinet members. But I'm also a bit skeptical about the actual efficacy, especially outside of Japan. So it's hard to believe that people who were originally hesitating to eat Japanese food in the first place, will now change their mind after they saw Kishida or Nishimura (Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura) eating it. We need to remember that there is still a domestic opposition to this plan, not just from the fishing industry, but also from other groups. And there's a lot of skepticism over the government's decision making process.
Anika Osaki Exum 09:44
Yeah, right. And it's 2023 and people just don't take the government's word that things are safe anymore. And, as a person that talked to other people up there, right, in Fukushima, I think, the opinion would be: “of course the government is going to show something like this to show that they are behind a plan that they are putting forth even if they don't exactly know if it's safe?”
Gabriele Ninivaggi 10:06
Absolutely. I told you, I think, it's expected from them.
Shaun McKenna 10:11
Yeah. But if the government didn't do that, I mean, then that would be a sign of big trouble right? After the release, there was concern that the public would stop buying seafood. Have we seen any economic changes? Or is it too early to tell?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 10:25
I think it might be actually a little too early to tell. It took some time before the fishing community in Fukushima was hit by the disaster in March 2011, so it's probably too early to say in terms of economic impact. Our colleague, Eric Johnston, last week wrote about how the fishing industry in Hokkaido was hit by the import ban imposed by China straight after the release and how the market price of scallops had nosedived last week.
Shaun McKenna 10:51
Oh right, so now would be the time to opt for scallops for dinner then.
Gabriele Ninivaggi 10:55
Correct. You should have your scallops tonight.
Shaun McKenna 10:56
Right. Anika has there been any polling on what the public thinks so far?
Anika Osaki Exum 11:01
Yeah, a TBS poll that came out this week found that 59% of the Japanese public was supportive of the release plan and 49% believe that the government wasn't doing enough to try to guard against reputational damage. But that's interesting because, while you can't really compare polling easily because of different methodologies and so on, prior to the release, a Kyodo poll found that 88.1% of respondents were concerned about the economic damage due to the water release. And the Asahi Shimbun found that 75% said the government's efforts to prevent reputational damage were insufficient.
Shaun McKenna 11:35
So I mean, we could say that before the release happened, people were actually more worried and it seems, if we're going by these polls, like, it seems like you know, people are not worried about this anymore. Case closed?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 11:48
I'm not sure about that. Honestly. In Italian, we have this phrase prenderlo con le pinze, which means taking something with a grain of salt, literally with tongs, but with a grain of salt. And, this is absolutely the case where you know we got these numbers from polls, but I think you need to step back and look at the situation from a distance, another perspective, for sure. But, I was at the prime minister's office when Masanobu Sakamoto, who is the head of the the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, or Zengyoren in Japanese, met Kishida before the release, and he said that the promises that the government had made, that they wouldn't start to release unless it was understanding at a local level, may not have been broken, but it wasn't exactly kept either.
Shaun McKenna 12:44
Before the break, we talked about some of the people who are supporting the fishing industry, regardless of whether or not they're on board with the actual wastewater release plan. Gabriele, who is against the plan?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 12:55
So far, primarily, we've seen a strong response from China.
So, Chinese government imposed a nationwide ban, a blanket ban, on Japanese fish from anywhere in Japan. And the Japanese government, at the same time, has warned citizens living in China to lay low for a bit, even warning them against speaking Japanese too loudly in public. There's also been, apparently, a rash of phone calls to Japanese businesses and governmental organizations in which members of the Chinese public have sort of scolded members of the Japanese public on the issue of the release.
Shaun McKenna 13:39
I can understand that people would be upset with the situation. But, does this response seem a little excessive? Like why are ordinary Chinese citizens so angry?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 13:47
Right, so from what we can gather, stories in the Chinese media on the issue are framing this as an apocalyptic event. There's a lot of fear mongering online. Again, obviously, not everybody is in agreement, especially when it comes to the long term effects of the plan. But, the IAEA signed off on it, as have several governments outside the region. It came out actually that the Chinese and Russian governments had proposed a plan to vaporize the treated water instead of releasing it into the ocean. And this was done after the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island in New York in 1979. And the Japanese side says it did look into this, but there were too many unknowables and it's also much more expensive. But at the same time, China says that Japan was putting savings ahead of safety by dismissing that plan.
Anika Osaki Exum 14:42
Yeah, the Japanese government has also gone to great lengths to show just how much tritium is being released into the water. The numbers they're recording are lower than what's being recorded at other nuclear facilities around the world, including in China.
Shaun McKenna 14:56
Do we know what the Chinese population in Japan thinks about this?
Anika Osaki Exum 15:00
Yeah, well, our colleagues Karin Kaneko and Yukana Inoue actually interviewed not residents, but Chinese tourists here. And they all refuse to give their full names, but many said that, while they might eat sushi while they're here, they might just cut back on how much they're eating.
Shaun McKenna 15:16
Okay. Other than the Chinese, how are other countries dealing with this issue?
Anika Osaki Exum 15:21
Actually, when I was up there, one of my sources — he actually ended up being my guide while it was up there on the day of the release — he used to work at plants, including the No. 1 plant, and he was really frustrated that Japanese press didn't seem to be covering it at the levels foreign press were. You know, just being in the field, being with him driving around the area close to the plant, there were a lot of foreign press, including those from China, Korea, and Western outlets.
Shaun McKenna 15:51
Did he seem like he was worried that the foreign press is going to make a bigger deal of this than it actually is? Or is he more worried that the Japanese press isn't kind of helping?
Anika Osaki Exum 16:02
Yeah, I think the latter. He was appreciative of foreign press for covering the area and was frustrated that his own country's media wasn't paying so much attention, or he felt like they weren't paying as much attention as the foreign press.
Shaun McKenna 16:16
It's an interesting call back to the mayor you spoke to who also said that, you know, he had to make that video.
Anika Osaki Exum 16:22
Yeah, he got that Time 100 recognition, whereas, you know, locally, maybe not. I mean, in Japan, it wasn't the same sort of attention.
Gabriele Ninivaggi 16:31
Yeah, I noticed the same thing when I was covering this issue in Tokyo, actually. So, another country, though, I think we should talk about is South Korea, because an opinion poll released by Gallup Korea last week showed that a majority of the public still opposes the release, with the number against as high as 75%. And, the simple found that around 6 out of 10 people are said to have been refraining from eating seafood at all. And obviously South Korea retains some restrictions on seafood and other produce from the area of Fukushima, from the disaster, actually, or just soon after the disaster. The thing is that President Yoon’s government is sort of walking a fine line with this because the administration is okay with the plan, but you know, with so much public opposition, they cannot really officially endorse it, and that as also the fact that they're okay with the plan has given the opposition a way to criticize them. Elsewhere in Asia, Hong Kong and Macau have both banned seafood imports from Fukushima, Tokyo, and eight other prefectures across eastern Japan. While Henry Puna, who is the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, released a statement the day the release started saying that, and I quote, “There continues to be divergent views and responses in the international community and within the forum membership on this issue,” and basically asking for more transparency to ensure that the release, and I quote, again, “will not be allowed in a manner that endangers the lives of Japanese citizens or those of the citizens of Pacific Island countries.”
Shaun McKenna 18:10
We talked a little bit about the Pacific Islands response with Mara back in July, including the fact that the people of those islands have a history of dealing with the ramifications of other country's actions when it comes to nuclear testing. Again, it's worth relistening to that podcast if you're interested in this topic. But, do we think that any of these parties are going to care about this in a year's time?
Gabriele Ninivaggi 18:32
I'm not sure, but maybe not as much. A lot of coverage creates fatigue, and people are likely to burn out very soon on this topic. But, you know, the government has repeatedly said, it's going to take full responsibility for this issue. So, they will have to be transparent about this for decades. It's not just now obviously. So if they’re seen to skew any data in favor of the Japanese position, you know, people might perceive that as them trying to hide something. We need transparency. Absolutely. It's a very delicate issue. The same thing is valid for Tepco, who is the company running the plant, as we all know, you know, they're not the most trusted company in Japan, euphemistically. So I think that the well being of local communities in Fukushima, and in general in eastern Japan should be given the highest priority on this issue, as they have been the ones bearing the brunt for this whole situation for the past 12 years, and more.
Anika Osaki Exum 19:27
Yeah, and I think that unfortunately, the fishing industry is going to be feeling the economic effects of this in a year, and are already feeling the effects. It took them a while to get over the reputation damage from the fallout at the meltdowns, and they're going to need a lot of support from the government in particular, as well, perhaps the entire industry if China continues its ban on all seafood products.
Shaun McKenna 19:47
Well, Gabriele and Anika, thank you both for coming on the podcast to explain this to us.
Shaun McKenna 20:04
While people groups and governments are voicing their displeasure with the Fukushima treated wastewater release plan, the prefecture itself has taken steps over the past 12 years to embrace renewable energy. In a story for The Japan Times this past Monday titled, “How a nuclear disaster spurred Fukushima to become a leader in renewables,” environment writer Francesco Bassetti outlined the progress the prefectures made with regards to new solar and wind power initiatives — and the headwinds it faces in becoming a national example in the transition to a zero-carbon future. Francesco, welcome to Deep Dive.
Francesco Bassetti 20:35
Hey, Shaun, good to see you and thanks for having me.
Shaun McKenna 20:38
So Francesco, in our previous segment we talked about former Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai’s opposition to Tepco’s wastewater release plan. You also spoke to him for your piece, what did he have to say about Minamisoma’s experienced with renewable energy?
Francesco Bassetti 20:53
Yeah, I met Sakurai-san back in July, when I traveled to Fukushima, and Miyagi, also to report actually on the Tepco treated wastewater release. And it was actually while I was driving up the coast to up the Fukushima coast that I realized just how many solar panels and even wind turbines there were all along that area. And for me that was something particularly surprising because in the Japanese context, I mean, I'm sure you guys have been around Japan, it isn't that common to see large renewable energy infrastructure like you do, for example, in Europe or the U.S. and many other countries, right. So when I got to Minamisoma, the first person who I talked to was Sakurai-san and, and I brought up the issue of renewables because I knew that he was the mayor who had implemented Minamisoma’s renewable energy promotion vision. So just to give you a little bit of context, Minamisoma is on the coast of Fukushima and it was heavily affected by the 2011 triple disaster, and in the days, months and years after the disaster, they had to rebuild. And part of his whole policy of rebuilding and reconstruction was to unite reconstruction with renewable energy and bring the two things together. So the renewable energy promotion vision set the goal of satisfying 100% of Minamisoma’s energy needs with renewables by 2030. And, I think you kind of have to picture a devastated coastline and Minamisoma, there were around 3,000 homes that had to be rebuilt entirely or partially, and there was no access to reliable energy for months. So you can really see why the two issues kind of came together — the idea of reconstruction and renewable energy and how they sort of became intrinsically linked. And I guess this was true for a lot of that coastline, Minamisoma wasn't the exception. But what impressed me about Sakurai-san’s vision in particular, was that he wasn't just intent on changing the source of energy, but he wanted to really reshape the very relationship that people had with the way they consume energy, so to no longer be just consumers but also produce their own energy. And he wanted to do this through solar solar panels on rooftops in particular, and sort of break that relationship of dependency that he saw as one of the fundamental characteristics of the old energy system. So Minamisoma, in that sense, is certainly a success story. In 2022, it had 96% of its electricity came from renewables. Yeah, 96%, which is huge. I mean, if you compare it to the rest of Japan, yeah, pretty close to 100%. And considering that their target was 100% by 2030. They're on course and actually I was talking with Hitachi, who are developing two new wind farms, in Minamisoma and one on the border between Minamisoma and the neighboring town of Iitate. And when those will be finished, Minamisoma will have 100% renewable energy, and that's probably going to be in the next two years. So they're ahead of schedule.
Shaun McKenna 24:05
What's the division like between solar and wind?
Francesco Bassetti 24:09
Yeah, it's 97% of the renewable energy and Minamisoma comes from solar. So this it was a massive solar boom, basically, there's 3% wind, but the future is certainly going to be evermore, evermore wind.
Shaun McKenna 24:23
Zooming out from Minamisoma, the prefecture has some pretty admirable goals when it comes to renewables as well. You say Fukushima is aiming for 70% of its energy provided by renewables by 2030, and 100% by 2040. How do they have the support to shoot for these goals?
Francesco Bassetti 24:40
Well, yeah, as you said, Minamisoma isn't an isolated case in the Fukushima Prefecture context. A lot of municipalities relied on prefectural laws to sort of increase their share of renewables. And the prefecture after 2011 was extremely hard at work to transform its energy system both out of necessity, but also out of an understanding that things have to change the negative experience with nuclear. And, yeah, you mentioned the 2030 and the 2040 goals, but it's also just to give you an idea of how well they've done so far, their 2020 goal was to reach 40% of energy demand with renewables and they actually exceeded that. So they've been extremely successful thus far. And the main ingredient probably to the success of with most of the people I talked to they indicated that the main ingredient to the success of the growth in renewable energy was the feed-in tariff scheme implemented by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in July 2012. So basically, a feed-in tariff obliges utilities to purchase electricity generated by certified renewable sources at fixed prices for a set period of time. And the effect of the feed-in tariff has been massive in the years, between 2009 and 2012, there was an annual average growth in renewables of 9%. Whereas compared to the years between 2012 and 2016, the annual average growth was 26%. So you can really see how the introduction of the feed-in tariff sort of spurred the growth of the renewable energy.
Shaun McKenna 26:22
Which kind of gets to the idea that the government change can kind of affect actual positive change when it comes to policies on the ground and in business.
Francesco Bassetti 26:31
Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head, the feed-in tariff is a national policy, and therefore you see how it's affected the nation. But the question then is, if the feed-in tariff was a national policy, why was the growth even bigger and much more significant in Fukushima? And I think that really leads to the idea of popular acceptance and desire for renewable energy projects on a prefectural, municipal and even local level. And, as I said before, this sort of arose out of the traumatic relationship with nuclear and the need for change, but also the will to change in a specific direction, i.e., renewables. And yeah, I think the local level support is also a fundamental ingredient, especially now that we see all around the world the growth in renewable energy, because one of the most common objections to the growth in renewable energy projects and infrastructure is popular opposition to changes in land use and what is kind of being termed as NIMBYism.
Shaun McKenna 27:31
Right. So that's an acronym for “not in my backyard.” And these tend to be people who reject various forms of new infrastructure in their neighborhoods, right? In this case, it may be giant windmills generating wind power.
Francesco Bassetti 27:44
Yeah, absolutely. And the curious thing with NIMBYism is that the people who oppose these projects in their backyard are not necessarily against wind or solar farms or renewables, they just don't want it in their house in their backyard. And this can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we shrug them off as they just don't like the look of windmills on the horizon or the scenery, but there can also be legitimate and justified reasons why you wouldn't want large solar or large wind energy projects in your backyard.
Shaun McKenna 28:18
Your article also brought up arguments surrounding land use, can you explain those to us?
Francesco Bassetti 28:22
Yeah, I think that's also kind of connected to the NIMBYism. But the idea that these projects face opposition because people don't want to sacrifice the way that they've used their land traditionally, or basically even access to their land. So Sakurai, for me was was a great example of this, I expected him to be very happy with the progress of renewables in Minamisoma. But he was obviously happy and very proud of his achievements in the conversion to renewable energy, but he was also very reticent about converting large amounts of abandoned farmland or disused — abandoned and disused — farmland into mega solar farms or mega wind projects. Because for him, that almost meant giving up on a return to that land and on communities being able to go back to what used to be their home and their traditional activities. I'd say, however, that that's kind of the exception in Fukushima, because in the aftermath of the disaster, you have a particular situation whereby large areas of the coast had land which was either destroyed, abandoned, unused or not fit for farming anymore due to both the destruction of the tsunami but also the nuclear fallout. And this situation with the land coupled with the trauma around nuclear energy meant that turning to renewable energy projects was a good way to redevelop the areas and something that municipalities really turned to. So in a certain sense, you have this sort of contrast of an opposition almost of should we take back our land for farming and traditional practice, or a convert it into solar power plants? It's like a dichotomy on this — but it doesn't always have to be that way. And, and when I was in Iitate, I came across a project that sort of tried to bring the two things together and basically what they're doing there is something called “solar sharing,” where they build solar farms above farmland, and farmers can continue to cultivate their normal crops. And these 3-meter tall solar panels are built with adequate spacing, so the crops aren't affected below. And yeah, this is really picking off in Iitate. And there's a lot of interest in it throughout the rest of Japan as well. And it's, it's one possible solution to this problem of land use.
Shaun McKenna 30:51
So while some gains have been made, Fukushima still isn't the renewable utopia that many people would like to see, what are some of the problems that the region is currently facing with regard to progress toward its zero carbon goals?
Francesco Bassetti 31:05
Well, Fukushima certainly got off to a great start. But like other areas of Japan, it faces considerable issues with the growth of renewable energy, infrastructure and potential. So Fukushima has grid connection issues, which make it difficult to fully develop its renewable energy potential. And this is often cited as one of the main issues. In the case of Fukushima, in particular, a weak local grid system seems to be one of the main inhibiting factors. So what this means is that areas where there are favorable conditions for renewables to be developed — so imagine a windy coast or section of flatland where you can get good access to sun — may not have a good connection to the grid.
Shaun McKenna 31:49
This is the energy grid.
Francesco Bassetti 31:50
Exactly, yeah. So the grid, traditionally, it's built to connect large power stations to large cities and now with things such as wind power or solar, you need to connect more remote areas and smaller, smaller power stations let's call them, to, once again, into the grid. So you have an issue of, of infrastructure.
Shaun McKenna 32:14
Anyone who's played SimCity or, you know, any game like that will probably understand this.
Francesco Bassetti 32:22
Exactly, yeah, I like to picture the grid as sort of the roots coming out of the tree and up until now, it's always been very large roots that connect to a source of nutrients, which is one fixed source, whereas now we kind of need to branch out with a lot of little roots that connect everything to the main, to the main source that then sucks in the nutrients. So, yeah, and then there's a whole issue of interconnection between regions in Japan due to the grid. But that's not necessarily one of the issues that Fukushima faces, because of its history with nuclear power means that it's relatively compared to other regions well connected with big urban areas such as, such as Tokyo. So the main issue is definitely the weak local grid. And then, the other issue, which is surprising and then also not really surprising, is opposition from incumbent energy companies to new renewable energy projects. And whereas initially, incumbent energy companies were very happy for renewables such as solar to develop, they sort of underestimated the potential of things like solar. And the explosion, or the solar boom, as they call it, of the last 10 years, has sort of affected the way the incumbent energy companies, it's affected their business model and affected their ability to turn a profit as they used to. And this has meant that they've started to pull out all the tricks they have in the book, to sort of put a, at least a brake on the development of new renewables in particular, such as wind but also, in some cases, also solar projects. So, yeah, that's definitely also an issue of resistance to change by the existing establishment. So I mean, one thing that surprised me hugely, which I was told during reporting was that wind power, or wind farms have an environmental assessment period of eight years, which is more than it would take to open a new coal-fired power station. So it's and this isn't necessarily the fault of the incumbent energy companies, but there's certainly lobbying by certain companies within the government to make sure that newcomers to the energy market are thoroughly vetted. And finally, another point that a few of the researchers and experts I talked to brought up which in a certain sense, kind of surprised me was the idea that the resurgence of nuclear energy is becoming a potential issue and that, if on a national level are returned to nuclear as being promoted, then there isn't a clear direct option for people wanting to invest in renewable energy in Japan, it sort of gives them a gives a confused message on who they're betting on. Are we going to bet on nuclear, or do we want to push renewables? And I think this connects to what you were saying before the importance of that sort of national-level policy in making sure that everyone toes the line let’s say.
Shaun McKenna 35:24
Just going off what you're saying here, if nuclear is making some kind of comeback, does that mean the window for renewables could be at risk of closing, especially since we're getting further and further away from the disaster?
Francesco Bassetti 35:36
I definitely wouldn't say that the window is closing, I might say that the window isn't opening fast enough. But absolutely, everyone recognizes on all levels of society, but also in policymaking, that renewables will increasingly play a large role in Japan's energy future — and in particular, offshore wind is seen as the future of Japan's renewable energy. But it's also clear that, whereas in other countries, governments sort of push everyone else along by giving very strong policy messages, Japan isn't really playing that role. And this is slowing down the rate of progress considerably. So as I think I already mentioned, yeah, companies are unsure whether to bet on the Japanese market because they face an uncertain future. And this is causing delays in the deployment of renewable energy. On the other hand, though, I think Fukushima provides a good microcosm. I mean, again, as you said, it isn't quite a utopia, but it does provide a good microcosm of when renewables start to really permeate in the consciousness of people. And not just in terms of seeing wind farms and solar power plants but also in the creation of research centers, industrial hubs, including issues of renewable energy and how we produce and consume energy in education. And all this has been done by the prefecture, they're really pushing renewable energy as an opportunity and involving local people in decision-making and implementation of renewable energy projects.
Shaun McKenna 37:13
That's interesting, because with regards to the wastewater release plan, there seems to have been a lot of criticism from residents of the prefecture who feel they haven't been consulted as thoroughly about the plan as they would have liked. So it seemed to me that there was a real issue with communication on that front.
Francesco Bassetti 37:30
Yeah, I think with renewables, it's clear that for the success of renewable energy projects you need to, you need to have community involvement. First and foremost because of the land issue, like a lot of these renewable energy projects will be on people's land so if they don't embrace it, you're going to face considerable backlash. But this doesn't just mean looking at the technology and the energy products, but also making sure that people understand the broader environmental context and also, that they return to appreciating their local natural environment. And I guess it might sound a little bit airy fairy but, yeah, it's an important part of the process. And actually, while I was reporting in Fukushima, I also went up to Miyagi, and I came across a project there by an environmental education organization called Odyssey. And they're really that's that's the whole thing, they bring people and especially children back into nature and they give them sort of the skills to, to reconnect with nature and understand the natural world around them. And they hope that that in turn will help people comprehend how everything is connected and get more involved in issues about climate and about their environment.
Shaun McKenna 38:48
Does Odyssey also give those kinds of, like, courses to adults?
Francesco Bassetti 38:52
Yeah, actually, it was funny, they started off their main target was to go into the local elementary schools and then he received a lot of interest by those companies who wanted to send their employees. They've actually definitely branched out and they realize that the issue of contact with nature isn't just something that's relates to children but that adults also want it, need it and no longer know how to engage.
Shaun McKenna 39:19
Well, Francesco, I'll put a link to both of your stories in the show notes. Thanks for coming on Deep Dive.
Francesco Bassetti 39:25
Great, thanks a lot, Shaun. It's good chatting with you.
Shaun McKenna 39:32
My thanks again to Francesco, Gabriele and Anika for coming on this week's show. You may have noticed that we've started putting these episodes out on Thursdays instead of Wednesdays. It looks like this will continue for the foreseeable future — apologies for any inconvenience. And, hey, this just means your Friday commute will be that much more bearable, right?
Elsewhere in the news, the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake caused Tokyo to take a look at its infrastructure and officials are worried that the city lacks enough places to accommodate those who might be stranded due to a similarly large quake. Something along these lines happened after the Tohoku quake of 2011, which shook Tokyo fairly hard, causing trains and subways to shut down for the rest of the evening. Commuters who couldn't walk home and found themselves sleeping on the floors of their offices and the train stations. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government forecasts that 4.53 million people could be stranded if a quake struck beneath the city, and scientists say there's a 70% chance of that happening in the next 30 years.
Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez. The outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by the Japanese musician LLLL. I’m Shaun McKenna, podstukaresama.