The sun sets on Japan's nuclear age


NUCLEAR FALLOUT:The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant has grave implications for Japan’s planned atomic energy expansion, and also its long-term economic growth

IN A CITY where mass demonstrations are rare and generally tame, Tokyo has seen at least four in the past month, all against nuclear power. Thousands of people have marched past the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) shouting slogans at the executives they hold responsible for the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.

Furious parents from Fukushima Prefecture this month dumped irradiated soil from school playgrounds on the desks of government bureaucrats. More protests are planned in the sweltering summer months, when looming power cuts and leaking radiation from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi power plant will make life very uncomfortable for citizens in this densely populated, sprawling metropolis.

Could these angry, scattered voices from below congeal to topple Japan’s entire energy policy, or even abort the global turn to nuclear power? Prime minister Naoto Kan has already thrown a huge bone to the anti-nuclear lobby by asking for the temporary closure of the Hamaoka plant southwest of Tokyo.

Even as utility executives digested that unexpected request, polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of the public support the decision, which takes offline what many call the most dangerous power plant in the country. In a press conference this month, Kan further stunned the embattled industry by saying that energy policy in Japan must “go back to the drawing board,” which would mean reversing a four-decade focus on atomic power.

Nuclear proponents, however, have been quick to deny that any of this signals an energy revolution. “Energy economics and the current state of renewable energy technology are not suitable for a major shift within the next 10 to 30 years because of the need to accommodate the stable, predictable demand for power by Japanese industry and residential consumers at affordable prices,” says Paul J Scalise, an energy expert and fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan. He says Japanese capitalism simply cannot survive without nuclear power – at least for now.

The country faces no easy options. With virtually no resources and heavily dependent on oil from the volatile Middle East, Japan rushed to build atomic plants in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly near coastal areas that have suffered earthquakes and tsunami for millennia.

Whatever about the dubious merits of that decision, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors (including 17 operated by Tepco) now provide about 30 per cent of its total power needs, when running at full capacity. With Fukushima and other plants offline, capacity is down to about 22 per cent.

Before the March 11th megaquake triggered the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, Japan’s government aimed to boost this to 50 per cent. Another 12 plants were planned, including one of the largest in the world in Aomori Prefecture, in the country’s north.

Famously the only country to have suffered an attack by atomic weapons, Japan is the unlikely leader of a global nuclear revival. Three corporate heavyweights – Hitachi, Toshiba (which built several of the Fukushima reactors) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – have become world leaders in the complex technology behind nuclear power. Between them, they planned to double capital investment by more than $100 million (€70 million) by the end of the decade.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries planned to boost staff numbers of 4,500 at its nuclear power division by 1,000 within five years. Toshiba paid $5.4 billion in 2006 for a 51 per cent share in Westinghouse Electric, a leader in the Chinese market.

A controversial if little-known by-product of the industry’s enormous expansion in Japan was the amassing of weapons-grade plutonium to more than 45 tonnes, or one-fifth the global total.

Before the earthquake, those corporations, and Japan’s bureaucratic watchdog, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, were chasing for a share of about 150 new nuclear plants mooted for construction around the world, adding to the roughly 440 reactors already online.

Shrugging off the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the industry was attempting a comeback, driven by the demand for low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. But it faced a major problem: without government financial and political help, they would never be built because the nuclear option is still considered too risky and expensive for most commercial investors.

That’s why former British prime minister Tony Blair and other world leaders increasingly talked up the benefits of atomic power as a key strategy to fight climate change. “It’s difficult to see how to reduce CO2 emissions without nuclear power stations,” Blair told a Tokyo audience three years ago. It was notable too that even as Fukushima’s fires smouldered in late March, Kan stood side by side with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Tokyo to defend their nuclear strategies.

“Everyone is trying to cut CO2,” said Sarkozy, whose country generates 70 per cent of its power needs at nuclear plants. “The advanced countries don’t have much choice right now.” Apart from recommending new global safety standards, a nodding Kan had little to add.

Japan’s largest business lobby, the Keidanren, has made its position very clear. Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura this month demanded that Kan rescind his decision on Hamaoka, which he called “extralegal” and a “political performance”. With Japanese businesses already struggling to compete with mighty China, the nation cannot afford to ditch nuclear power, he warned.

For that reason, many analysts say that Kan’s more recent pronouncements are rhetoric designed to appease angry voters. The government’s true long-term intentions should be gauged by the fate of the two nuclear plants under construction in remote Shimane and Aomori prefectures. “Both power plants took over 10 years to site and build, cost billions of yen in construction costs and would cost the taxpayer even more to decommission if they were never brought online,” says Scalise.

Expect developing nations, with limited rights to public protest, to forge ahead with pro-nuclear policies, says Scalise.

By far the most important is China, with 27 reactors under construction, followed by Russia with 11, and India and South Korea with five apiece. Beijing announced a suspension of approval of new plants in March but most observers expect that to be temporary.

In the US and Europe, where public opinion is more hostile to nuclear power than ever, new construction is almost impossible. German and Italian leaders flinched in Fukushima’s aftermath. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised legislation in June as part of a plan to “quickly exit” from nuclear power.

As for Japan, much depends on how the media react to the growing catastrophe in Fukushima. So far, the big newspapers and broadcasting outlets have taken a cautious line, steering away from the word meltdown, for example, until Tepco admitted last weekend that is precisely what happened at Reactor 1 in the 24 hours after the March 11th quake struck.

The biggest recent survey, by state broadcaster NHK, found just 12 per cent of respondents in favour of scrapping all nuclear power stations; 42 per cent supported the status quo.

But nuclear opponents, largely ignored until this year, are increasingly getting a hearing, especially in the mass-selling weeklies. “In the end, building a nuclear plant in Japan with absolute safety is impossible,” says Atsushi Kasai, a member of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. In an interview with the Japan Times,Kasai said Fukushima would force Tepco and the government to scrap its entire nuclear blueprint and eventually shut down all Japan’s reactors. Only time will tell if he is correct.