Monday, October 1, 2012

Japan's alternative plan

Japan used to obtain around 26% of its electricity from its 54 nuclear plants. After Fukushima in March 2011, with opposition to nuclear widespread, all its nuclear power reactors were shutdown in sequence for safety checks, reviews and upgrades. Local prefectures, who in theory have the last say, resisted moves to restart them. So by May 2012 Japan had become nuclear free. But with the summer air-conditioning load looming, there were pressures to restart two of Kansai Electrical Power Co’s plants in the Western Fukui area, despite the very strong national opposition- thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said ‘We should restart the Ohi No. 3 and No. 4 reactors in order to protect the people's livelihoods. Japanese society cannot survive if we stop all nuclear reactors or keep them halted.’

He insisted that new safety measures would ensure the two reactors would not leak radiation if an earthquake or tsunami as severe as at Fukushima should strike them. However, while some of the main measures to secure cooling functions and prevent meltdowns as in Fukushima had been installed, more than a third of the necessary upgrades on the list were still incomplete- the full upgrades may take up to three years.

Nevertheless local governor Issei Nishikawa  evidently indicated approval for a restart: the Fukui region has the largest nuclear plant concentration in the country (13 reactors) and is heavily dependent on them for energy and employment. According a report in WISE/ NIRN’s Nuclear Monitor 751, there had been intense lobbying of political leaders by Kansai Electric Power Co (Kepco) and threats by major corporate supporters to relocate outside the region were cited by the Union of Kansai Governments as reasons for caving in. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto admitted defeat but said he had done all he could. Kepco evidently put a lot of pressure on companies in the region, telling them that without the Oi reactors, they would face rolling blackouts. Those firms, in turn, pressured local politicians, saying that if there were blackouts they would have to relocate outside the region.

Noda said the startup was not intended just for the summer, rejecting calls for limited operation by Osaka city and other nearby towns: ‘the livelihoods and daily lives of the Japanese people cannot be sustained if reactors are only restarted for the summer.’ He said he planned to start up more reactors whenever their safety was confirmed. At the same time, he confirmed that the government would be producing a national energy plan, although it was delayed from June to August.  Presumably he wanted the initial start up in place to prepare the political climate for a less anti nuclear plan. And, despite a lot of protest, he got his way- the go ahead for the two Ohi plants to start up came in late June and they reached full power in July.

So the nuclear-free honeymoon period is over. It would certainly have been hard for Japan to run without some extra input.  Even with its full nuclear compliment, it was highly dependent on energy imports; it imported around 80% of its energy mostly coal and oil  (and of course uranium). But it had made good progress in cutting demand through emergency energy saving efforts, and given time renewables could be ramped up to take over most electricity and heat supply.  Certainly it is trying to develop an alternative approach, based on energy efficiency and a major commitment to renewables, including a new quite generous Feed-In Tariff for PV solar, a 1GW off shore wind programme and more support for other marine renewables- offshore projects obviously make sense in a country where land is at a premium. 

In August a consultation report emerged, based on the three options that the government had put forward - zero nuclear, 15% nuclear or 20-25% nuclear, with renewables taking up most the slack, at 30-35%.  Early indications were that most of the public backed the zero nuclear option.  And in Sep, the government announced that it was aiming to get to zero nuclear ‘in the 2030s’. Given that Japan was originally planning  to expand nuclear from its pre Fukushima 26% to 45% of total electricity, that’s a  big shift- but at what a huge financial and social cost, not least to the thousands of evacuees still unable to return home.

Their plight was revealed in a survey by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee for the Japanese Diet found.  Over 10,000 local resident responded, some very bitterly. The survey found that delays in passing on information meant that awareness of the accident was initially very low amongst residents. Some residents did not realise they were being evacuated from their homes because of a nuclear accident and might not be able to return for a long time. Many reported fleeing in just the clothes they had on, without taking time to gather valuables, medical records or even to lock their homes, with some thinking they were being evacuated because of the risk of a further tsunami. Evacuation orders were issued firstly for a zone close to the plant, the next day the evacuation zone was increased to 10 km, then 20 km, and finally the government requested voluntary evacuation for residents 20-30 km from the plant. Some ended up having to move several (4-6+) times, some into areas which turned out to be more contaminated. Many respondents referred to TV reports that there were no immediate health risks. So now evacuees didn’t trust the media or assurances that they could return.   Residents said they had often been assured of the safety of nuclear power, and thought that an accident could never occur. Now they know better.

But life goes on. Japanese company Softbank Mobile’s Sharp Pantone 5 107SH smart phone has a gamma radiation monitor app.   Lets hope it’s not need in future. The interim ‘zero nuclear in /by the 2030s’ position is a little  vague- that could  mean up to 2039! And it’s far enough away to allow for backsliding…

The full Fukushima story is covered in a book I’ve produced as part of  Palgrave Macmillan’s new Pivot e-book initiative.  Out at the end of October:  ‘Fukushima: impacts and implications’.


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