The Irish Times view on the nuclear debate: Fukushima’s legacy of mistrust

Ten years after its worst nuclear accident, Japan is still wrestling with a dilemma over its energy sources

Local residents release lanterns for earthquake and tsunami victims in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture on Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake which triggered a tsunami and nuclear disaster. Photograph: STR/Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images

Ten years after the March 2011 meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear power plant, only one third of the 160,000 who fled their homes in Japan's eastern province have returned. Some 37,000 of them cannot do so because annual radiation levels on their land and homes remain at over 50 millisieverts, 10 times annual background radiation.

Yet proponents of nuclear power argue that the world's most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 – which has paralysed debate on Japan's energy future – does not seem to have directly caused any deaths. A UN report this week confirms as much, its chair insisting that "no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident". Thyroid cancer-linked radiation releases were a hundredth of the level in Chernobyl.

But the explosions were preceded and triggered by a level 9 earthquake 130 km offshore – an area of the seabed extending 650km north-south moved 10-20 metres and Japan itself moved a few metres east. A giant tsunami followed. Between them they devastated 800km of coastline, leaving 15,899 dead, 2,527 missing and 500,000 homeless. And in a mass evacuation to escape radiation contamination, several thousand died, mostly the vulnerable elderly.

Many lost property, land, jobs, and community. The fishing industry remains devastated. Agriculture is just beginning to return. The cost for Fukushima’s decommissioning, decontamination, and compensation will be up to €620 billion. Not counting the loss of 24 of Japan’s reactors permanently closed, upgrades to the 33 remaining reactors, and the costs to replace the electricity lost.

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For a government wedded to nuclear energy as key to the climate change challenge of zero carbon emississions by 2050, and which came close to power cuts this winter, popular resistance to nuclear is a major political obstacle. Polling for broadcaster NHK found only 3 per cent of the public wants to use more nuclear power. Assurances from Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), operator of the Daiichi plant, that it is incorporating post-Fukushima knowhow into its blueprints, “including earthquake and tsunami countermeasures” simply won’t wash.

The Japanese government’s 2018 energy policy foresees continued reliance on nuclear plant reopenings and still leaves fossil fuels contributing 56 per cent of total power by 2030. There are plans to build more than a dozen new coal-fired power plants. The figures simply do not add up. Every government review of energy policy has come back to this same conclusion: even with a massive increase in renewables, there will still be a gap of about 40 per cent of energy demand in 2050, which must be met by either fossil fuels or nuclear power.