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Magazine / ENERGY

Why Japan Can't Quit Nuclear Power

Since the Fukushima meltdown, the country has tried to reduce its reliance on nuclear reactors. But with nearly a third of its energy needs powered by the atom, change is difficult.

Wishful thinking: Antinuclear protesters racked Tokyo but can’t change the basic economics. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

photo of Olga Belogolova
February 14, 2013

More on Post-Fukushima Japan

Almost 2 Years Later: Pictures from One Town's Struggle to Recover

TOKYO—Hiroko Sata, an 87-year-old nurse, walked out into the Tokyo street on Nov. 11 to see about the commotion. To her left, more than 1,000 people were banging drums and shouting slogans. “What in the world is going on there?” she asked me and my translator, grimacing at the disturbance. The protesters, we told her, had gathered in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to commemorate the 20-month anniversary of the disastrous triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011.

Sata, who is older than Japan’s nearly 60-year-old civilian nuclear industry, remembers a time without nuclear power. Families were allowed just a few lightbulbs in the 1940s, because the electrical system was still in its infancy. “There was a TEPCO office in the neighborhood,” she recalls, and when a bulb burned out, “we had to bring it there” to trade it for a new one. The advent of nuclear power meant that the Japanese could consume as much electricity as they wanted.

Now, behind Sata, the protesters are chanting, “Stop nukes immediately!” and “Shame on you, TEPCO!” Mostly middle-aged, they are braving the rain to crowd in front of TEPCO and other government agencies, including the Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry, where an antinuclear tent flaps permanently in the wind. All of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors except two were idled after the Fukushima disaster, and protesters do not want them reopened.

 

Fukushima filled the streets with people. An antinuclear demonstration in Tokyo last July turned out 170,000, larger even than the 1960s protests against a security treaty with the United States. After the earthquake and tsunami that caused the 2011 meltdown, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tokyo—and thousands more assembled elsewhere across Japan—to demand a permanent shutdown of the nation’s nuclear plants. The antinuclear movement had previously been an insignificant collection of Cassandra-like students, but now demonstrations regularly rack Japan’s cities. In Fukushima, they gather weekly.

Sata regards the crowd. Then she points to the brightly lit high-rise next to her. “If we don’t have the nuclear plants, how is it going to work without electricity?” This is not some false dichotomy dreamed up by an old-timer who remembers a world without much light. Sata may be right: Japan lacks alternate sources of energy that are plentiful and cheap. After 60 years of dependence, the country is economically, historically, and culturally handcuffed to the atom. It has no ready remedy, and even the long-term fixes could break the Japanese economy.

Which may explain why, just a month after the November protest, Japanese voters elected as prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is more open to restarting Japan’s stalled nuclear industry than his predecessor. The election represents a choice that Japan and many other countries have made and will keep making: immediate economic security over long-term safety and environmental concerns. The energy source may vary—in Japan it’s nuclear power, but in the United States it’s fossil fuels, and in the Persian Gulf it’s oil—but the choice is the same. Call it the myopia of power.

THE ATOM RISES

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address at the United Nations, arguing that nukes needn’t be used only for war. But the next year, a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test near the Pacific’s Marshall Islands almost derailed those plans. The nuclear fallout reached a Japanese tuna fishing boat, exposing 23 fishermen and their catch. Many of the crew were hospitalized, and the vessel’s radio operator died several months later. The tragedy—and subsequent fears of contaminated fish entering the market—spurred protests in Japan. Suddenly, “Atoms for Peace” was in danger.

So the Defense Department decided that the U.S. government should build a nuclear reactor in Japan. “A vigorous offensive on the nonwar uses of atomic energy would appear to be a timely and effective way of countering [Russia’s nuclear-weapons program] and minimizing the harm already done in Japan,” declared a Pentagon memo at the time. Civilian nuclear power became the best way to change the subject and cast Washington as the benevolent hegemon. “Now, while the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain so vivid, construction of such a power plant in a country like Japan would be a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities,” U.S. Atomic Energy Commissioner Thomas Murray said in a major policy address in 1954. It was the first time a U.S. nuclear policymaker had publicly floated the idea of building a reactor in Japan.

At first, antinuclear sentiment in Japan was strong. By the end of that year, 34 million people—more than half of eligible Japanese voters—had signed a petition in favor of banning nuclear weapons. But the United States and a few prominent Japanese supporters were determined to sell the peaceful atom to Japan, separating military concerns from energy. Media mogul Matsutarō Shōriki used his newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, to advance the cause. (One rumor held that he was a CIA agent.) The newspaper, along with the U.S. Embassy, cosponsored an exhibit welcoming the atom back to Japan that regularly attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, even in Hiroshima, as it traveled around the country. By the beginning of 1956, the pendulum of Japanese public opinion had swung in the other direction, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

At the same time, a comic-strip character who debuted in 1952 was also becoming popular. Astro Boy, who is known in Japan as Atom, was a nuclear-powered android with a sister named Uran, the local diminutive for uranium. (The creator, Osamu Tezuka, is often described as the godfather of Japanese animation.) In the opening credits for the popular 1963 TV cartoon inspired by Astro Boy, a young, wide-eyed boy literally pops out of a mushroom cloud. He flexes his muscles and shoots into the air, passing through a stormy sky, waving to a commercial airliner, swooshing over dolphins in the ocean, and flying alongside a fast-moving train, all while cheerful music plays and people look on in awe. Astro Boy has remained popular in Japan since the 1950s, appearing in animated television shows, video games, and a feature film adaptation of the comic.

Astro Boy was the cultural expression of a broader shift: Across Japan, attitudes about nuclear energy were changing. In 1954, Japan budgeted 230 million yen for nuclear energy; the first commercial nuclear-power plant opened in the Ibaraki prefecture in 1966. Other reactors soon followed. By 1973, five reactors were up and running, but 72 percent of Japan’s energy still came from oil. Then the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed a worldwide oil embargo and prices soared, pushing the island nation even further toward nuclear power as a means to energy independence. Before the Fukushima meltdown, Japan was down to getting just 63 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, with 30 percent coming from nuclear power. (By contrast, the United States gets 19 percent of its power from nukes.)

Traveling around Japan to get a sense of how ordinary folks felt about nuclear power, I met Tomie Ishikawa, 90, who told me an extraordinary story. In 1985, the government approved the construction of a uranium-enrichment and spent-fuel-reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, her village, boosting a poor backwater with government subsidies and jobs. So in 1995, Ishikawa and two friends started a women’s reading club—not to discuss the latest novels, but to educate its members about the benefits and hazards of nuclear energy. “We studied what is bad and what is good,” recalls Haruko Nihonyanagi, 88, the chairwoman of the 25-person group who has lived in Rokkasho since 1945.

Nihonyanagi remembers the tense debate among the villagers when the nuclear facilities first opened. “At that time, there was such a big moment, a big dispute,” she recalls. “We didn’t know what the correct idea was.… We also needed to study: What is nuclear power? What is radiation?” Now Nihonyanagi and her friends are fluent policy wonks on the issue. They visited the devastated Fukushima area after the accident and talked to the panicked people there. “I kind of understand how they feel, because they haven’t studied [nuclear power], so they don’t have the knowledge,” Nihonyanagi says. She will stand up for nuclear power because Japan still needs it. “If … this new renewable energy can support all the Japanese electricity supplies, that would be fine, but at this moment, the renewable energy can support only a few percent of the whole electric consumption.”

Ishikawa prefers the ecological case. “I don’t think we can shut down the nuclear power, especially when we consider global warming,” she says. Becoming more dependent on fossil fuels would make the country that birthed the world’s first climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, scale back its emissions-reduction commitments. “Now this tiny [uranium] pellet can supply the electricity for half of a year.… Of course, this kind of very convenient and very precious things comes together with a bit of risk.”

CYCLE OF DEPENDENCE

The Rokkasho plant, which stretches for miles, covers the nuclear power cycle from start to finish—from enrichment to reprocessing of spent fuel for reuse. The visitor center, a tall green gherkin-esque building, makes the reprocessing facility seem like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where women dressed like flight attendants smile as they cheerfully walk visitors through interactive demonstrations of how plutonium is extracted from spent fuel and converted into a plutonium-uranium mixture to be used for next-generation reactors.

But the rest of the complex and its village home show just how conjoined Japan’s security and economy are with nuclear power. Even if the country wanted to step away from nuclear energy, it just can’t.

Beyond the avant-garde structure, the Rokkasho facility looks like a military base. Access is typically afforded only to officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Here lie massive stockpiles of separated plutonium; Japan has the largest reserve of any non-nuclear-weapons state—enough to make hundreds or even thousands of nuclear bombs. If Tokyo moved to phase out nuclear energy without ending reprocessing or permanently burying all of its spent fuel, it would not only create a target for terrorists but also violate the country’s international nonproliferation pledges. The fuel would have nowhere to go. (Tokyo is no closer to having a Yucca Mountain-type nuclear repository than Washington is.)

A nuclear phaseout would also jeopardize Japan’s energy independence by forcing it to import more fuel. With virtually no domestic energy resources, Japan is already the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the second-largest importer of coal, and the third-largest net importer of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Before March 2011, Japan was also the world’s third-largest producer of nuclear power, after the U.S. and France. But with the shutdown of plants after the accident, Japan has been substituting with natural gas, low-sulfur crude oil, and fuel oil. “The reliance on the hydrocarbons makes Japan vulnerable from the energy-security perspective,” says Hirohide Hirai, director of policy evaluation and public relations at the Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry.

Rokkasho is ground zero for Japan’s national security dilemma, but the economic dependencies are considerable, too. Locally, the facility has generated billions of yen in government subsidies and tax breaks. About 200 villagers are employed directly by the facility, while 60 to 70 percent of local workers—about 3,500 people—are employed by related businesses. “It has improved the standard of living of this local area,” says Rokkasho Deputy Mayor Mamoru Toda, who has spent his entire career focused on the nuclear facility. “If we abolish all of the nuclear energy, can we still go on with the prosperity of this country?”

Perhaps not. The mostly idled nuclear fleet offers a taste of life without the atom: In summer 2012, the country faced electricity shortages, forcing the government to push citizens toward power-saving measures such as restrictions on big users and reduced air-conditioning. Productivity suffered as workers labored through sweltering heat. Just in Tokyo, electricity costs, already among the highest in the world, rose by an average of 8.5 percent. Eight of Japan’s 10 power utilities reported heavy losses—$8.5 billion total over six months—from the cost of buying more oil and gas to replace idled reactors. The two profitable power companies had little or no generation from nuclear. All this from a temporary stoppage.

If Japan goes to zero nuclear power, as the protesters and former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda want, the resulting increase in fossil-fuel imports would cause an outflow of national wealth equivalent to 0.6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, according to research completed in January by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. That would lead to an increase of Japan’s enormous $74 billion trade deficit. “You have to pay a lot, a lot, a lot for LNG imports,” Hirai says. “If something happens in the Strait of Hormuz today, that makes—oh, I don’t want to think about it,” he adds, shaking his head.

A nuclear phaseout would also lead to a rise in electricity prices, increasing the burden on households by $10 billion ($115 per household). Japanese businesses would suffer from hiked electricity costs, with an increased burden of $22 billion. The fallout could cost some 420,000 jobs, according to IEEJ. All of that, in turn, would lead to an approximately $11 billion annual decline in corporate tax revenue and what the institute refers to as a “vicious cycle,” escalating the already massive debt problem faced by the world’s third-largest economy. “We don’t want to pursue such a miserable path,” Hirai says.

GRAVITY’S PULL

Towering along the seashore in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture is a 60-foot-tall anti-tsunami seawall. The massive structure—one of many countermeasures that Chubu Electric Power has implemented at its Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station since the 2011 temblor—shows just how far, and high, Japan is willing to go to hold on to nuclear energy.

Hamaoka was shut down immediately after Fukushima, because this region is due for an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher sometime in the next 30 years. Largely considered a ticking time bomb, the plant is probably the last place that should be confident about a restart of Japan’s nuclear power. But Chubu has poured nearly $1.8 billion into anti-seismic and anti-flooding prophylactics to make Japan’s most vulnerable nuclear plant ready to reopen—without any promise that such a day will ever come.

Like Japan, Chubu Electric has other energy-supply options, including thermal power stations and renewable-energy projects now under way. But for now, these can’t cheaply make up the difference. Like Japan, Chubu has chosen to invest in its nuclear power station, despite the safety concerns. It’s for the same reason that the United States allowed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico so soon after the BP oil spill. The same reason that safety concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing are not holding back the U.S. shale-gas boom. Faced with the choice between economic sustainability and the far-off promise of renewable energy, most countries are choosing, and will continue to choose, to protect their economy. It’s a choice that Hiroko Sata, who grew up counting lightbulbs, would understand.

In January, Japan’s new nuclear regulator released a draft of new safety measures, setting the stage in July for a nuclear restart, just a little more than two years after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.

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