Energy Conundrum: Japan Retreats from a Nuclear-Free Future
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, Japan turned its attention to renewable energies. Such technologies, however, will take years to develop. In the mean time, the country is importing increased amounts of fossil fuels -- and flirting with a return to nuclear energy.
Yasuyuki Ikegami has been in great demand since the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A specialist in marine energy, Ikegami has spent years figuring out how to generate electricity from the power of waves and tides. One year after the meltdown in Japan, his research is more in vogue than ever before.
The catastrophe has prompted the Japanese to renew their focus on renewable energies technologies. The country was once a pioneer in the field, but that was before all energy was devoted to the atom.
Ikegami has been able to unveil prototypes at his research center in the southwestern Saga prefecture. Since Fukushima, several prefectures are competing to make the seas off their coasts available as test areas. But Ikegami fears that Japan's enthusiasm for alternative energy could soon dissipate.
His fears stem in part from the fact that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently had two decommissioned reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in western Japan restarted. The move strikes a blow to hopes for a rapid turn toward renewables in Japan, even through about a hundred thousand people took to the streets of Tokyo last week to protest nuclear energy -- a surprising turnout for a nuclear-friendly country like Japan.
The government is already looking into the possibility of restarting other nuclear reactors. Until Fukushima, Japan satisfied about 30 percent of its electricity demands with nuclear power, while renewable energy made up about 10 percent of the power supply. If one leaves out hydroelectric power, renewables hardly make up more than 1 percent.
Learning Lessons from the Disaster
Nevertheless, the lights did not go out in Japan after Fukushima, and for a short time the country seemed astonishingly prepared to learn lessons from the disaster. Just like after the oil crisis in the early 1970s, corporate executives and scientists came up with competing ideas to conserve electricity and develop alternative energy sources.
The debate was intensified by a new law that went into effect on July 1. It requires Japan's nine regional electricity monopolies to buy energy produced using renewable sources at comparatively high prices from private producers, and to feed it into their grids.
Ryuzo Furukawa, 40, also suddenly became a sought-after expert. The professor likes to meet with visitors in the Eco Lab at Tohoko University in the northern Japanese city of Sendai. In search of the lost art of pursuing a sustainable lifestyle, Furukawa conducted an extensive survey of Japanese citizens 90 years old and above. "To conserve energy, we have to get back to neighborly values," he concludes. In cities like Sendai, for example, the professor wants to create public venues where residents can charge their mobile phones together and sharpen their collective appreciation for the value of electricity.
Meanwhile, marine energy expert Ikegami wants to emulate the European Union, which operates a wave and tidal power testing station off the coast of Scotland. In Japan, local fishermen have often obstructed the approval of such test facilities. The Japanese producer Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for example, has also had to test its marine energy technology off the coast of Scotland instead of in domestic waters.
"Marine energy provides our industry with new growth opportunities," says Ikegami, pointing out that shipbuilding companies like Mitsubishi could apply their strengths to the construction of wave power plants. According to Ikegami, Japan has no time to lose, especially since its rival China has long since begun pushing the development of such technologies.
The Land of Volcanoes and Hot Springs
The Japanese are also taking wind and solar energy seriously again. A consortium currently plans to build the world's largest wind farm off the Fukushima coast.
Unlike the government in Tokyo, the prefecture where the nuclear accident occurred has officially renounced nuclear energy. Because the ocean is so deep there, the wind turbines will be installed on floating platforms.
"Megasolar" is another buzzword that has been circulating since Fukushima. In a number of regions, local politicians are discovering the construction of solar energy parks as a new economic sector. Analysts estimate that Japan's solar capacity could be quadrupled, to 19 gigawatts, by 2016. Japanese manufacturers like Sharp also hope to reposition themselves globally with large-scale solar power plants. Like the Germans, the Japanese have felt the pressure from low-cost Chinese competition when it comes to smaller solar plants.
Geothermal, too, is to become a greater part of Japan's energy mix. The land of volcanoes and hot springs has the world's third-largest geothermal potential, next to the United States and Indonesia. To take advantage of this abundant resource, the government intends to open more national parks in northern Japan to geothermal development.
But it will likely take decades before alternative technologies are sufficiently mature to replace nuclear power, says Atsushi Tsutsumi. A professor of industrial engineering, he prefers to focus on increasing energy efficiency.
In his office at the University of Tokyo, Tsutsumi spreads out a stack of complicated diagrams to explain his technology, which makes it possible to recapture and reuse heat energy lost in processes like the production of ethanol. His new method is already in use at a plant in southern Japan.
To invest in new forms of energy and technologies, however, companies and municipalities have often lacked a concrete legal framework and tax incentives. "Japan needs a vision," says Tsutsumi. It isn't until next month, almost one-and-a-half years after Fukushima, that Tokyo plans to unveil a new energy concept for the future, covering the time period until 2030.
Little Room for Debate
Experts in Tokyo are currently bargaining over what exactly the energy mix should look like. Environment Minister Goshi Hosono supports a plan in which nuclear power's share of the energy mix would shrink to 15 percent. But who is willing to believe him, especially after his earlier proposal to limit the lifespans of all nuclear power plants to 40 years? Tokyo is now considering revisiting that limit in favor of longer lifespans. In the future, decisions on the lifespans of reactors will be made by a new nuclear safety agency, which is expected to begin its work this year.
Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese politicians never announced a blanket phase-out of nuclear energy. Instead, all they have been doing is temporarily shutting down the controversial technology -- using a very Japanese approach that stresses collective harmony and leaves little room for debate.
The nuclear lobby, from the powerful electric utilities to the compliant media, known in Japan as the atomic village ("Genpatsu Mura"), has merely been keeping a low profile, knowing how deeply Fukushima and its consequences have affected the Japanese people.
According to official estimates, about 160,000 residents were forced to leave the areas contaminated with radiation, and many will not be able to return for decades. Periodic reports of contaminated food have also kept fears alive.
This makes many prefectures and communities hesitant to agree to the reactivation of more nuclear plants. According to opinion polls, more than half of Japanese are opposed to the resumption of nuclear energy. The government, for its part, hopes to reverse the trend with its reactivation of the Ohi reactors. Prime Minister Noda has even ignored seismologist warnings that the Ohi plant could be located on an active fault line.
Thousands of anti-nuclear protesters demonstrate regularly near Noda's office in Tokyo. But Japan's politicians have yet to learn how to take concerned citizens seriously. On the day of a recent protest, Noda expressed surprise at the "big noise" outside, according to the newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Concern over the Balance Sheets
The premier is in a hurry. Opponents of nuclear power suspect that he is determined to disprove their contention that a hot Japanese summer can be endured without electricity from nuclear power.
The Japanese normally run their air-conditioners at full blast in July and August. Experts predict that at peak times electricity demand could dangerously exceed capacity in the Osaka area. But even after the mini-steps Japan has taken back toward nuclear power, the supply remains tight. Businesses and households continue to struggle through a nerve-wracking summer of energy conservation.
Many factories have bought their own generators to protect themselves against outages. Others hope to avoid bottlenecks by employing weekend shifts. Some industry executives are considering moving their plants abroad.
The government also fears that nuclear power plants that have been taken out of service will ruin the balance sheets of the major energy companies. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the destroyed Fukushima reactor, has already been virtually nationalized. The company faces billions of euros in compensation claims resulting from the disaster. The electric utilities are also groaning under the cost of the increased importation of oil and gas, which they use to power their conventional power plants. Many of these plants were hastily put back into service after Fukushima.
The share of liquefied natural gas in Japan's power supply increased to almost 40 percent recently. In the end, consumers will be footing the bill, with TEPCO already planning significant electricity price hikes.
The island nation's growing dependence on imported energy is also stoking national security fears. With few mineral resources of its own, Japan imports more than 80 percent of its oil from the Middle East.
'Plenty of Work'
The country's conventional thermal power plants are currently operating at full capacity. Important maintenance work has been postponed. "We beseech all the gods in the world to give us favorable temperatures, and pray that there will be no technical breakdowns," said Makoto Yagi, the president of Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), which covers western Japan.
By painting horrific scenarios of a summer without nuclear power, Yagi played a key role in the reactivation of the Ohi reactors. Many residents of the town of 8,500, with its forested coves, are relieved that their power plant -- the only major employer -- is up and running once again.
Jiku Miyazaki, 68, on the other hand, has long been one of Ohi's nuclear power skeptics. Ever since the Fukushima disaster, the Buddhist priest and his wife Soshin have felt confident enough to express their concerns openly.
In the past, they had to make allowances for the members of their temple's congregation, many of whom worked for KEPCO. The entire town depends on subsidies from the government and KEPCO.
Although the priest intends to continue issuing his warnings about the dangers of nuclear power, he also knows that established facts are more powerful that moral appeals. The priest drives his minivan past the attractive buildings Ohi was able to erect with money from the nuclear industry. "This is the town hall," says Miyazaki, pointing to a giant building that could house the parliament in some countries.
Miyazaki continues driving along smoothly paved streets to the culture center and, next to it, the sports complex, both built with subsidies from the nuclear industry. "Many in my congregation secretly have their doubts about nuclear energy," says Miyazaki. But they are even more worried about losing their jobs, he says.
The priest, though, believes that there will be plenty of work in Ohi for decades to come. "If they shut down the reactors, tear them down and dispose of all the nuclear waste, there will be plenty of work."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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