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Fukushima, a prefecture in northeastern Japan synonymous with a devastating nuclear meltdown, is seeking to transform itself into a renewable energy hub, a move seen as an effort by the prefecture to break away from its nuclear past and embrace a renewable future. On a national level, however, progress in this realm has been murky.

In March 2011, Fukushima experienced a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The devastating natural disasters set off nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, known as the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. 

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck, eleven reactors at the nuclear plants shut down automatically. However, the 15-meter tsunami disabled the reactor cooling system and caused a triple nuclear meltdown. The disaster released radiation into the atmosphere and water, forcing the evacuation of over 150 000 residents.

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Since then, the government and the operating company of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have been working to clean up and contain the damage, deploying thousands of workers to remove the radioactive material: wiping stains from roofs, cleaning roadside ditches, and raking leaves from under trees, which have been contaminated by radioactive material.

The plant operator has also been injecting water into the melted reactor cores to keep them cool. As the plant will likely run out of storage space by 2022, officials are devising strategies of what to do with the 1.2 million tons of treated radioactive water stored at Fukushima.

A panel of experts has proposed to re-treat the tainted water to safe levels and slowly discharge the water into the sea, but local residents, especially fishermen, strongly oppose this, fearing that it could hurt the reputation of local fishery products. Nevertheless, the government is leaning toward either dumping the water into the ocean or vaporising the water into the air. However, no date has been announced for implementing this plan.

Japan’s Renewable Energy Policy

In the meantime, Fukushima is moving towards a renewable future. The prefecture is dismantling the crippled nuclear power plant reactors and leading the national renewable energy drive. The local government has set a target of supplying Fukushima with 100% renewable energy by 2040, compared with 40% today.

Fukushima has been earmarked as a $2.75 billion renewable energy hub for developing 11 solar plants and 10 wind farms on contaminated former farmland and mountainous areas. The project is expected to generate up to 600 megawatts to power the Tokyo metropolitan region. 

The construction of the project- financed by the government-owned Development Bank of Japan and Mizuho Bank, among others- is expected to be completed in 2024.

Renewable energy is viewed positively by residents in Fukushima, according to a 2017 survey, with 54% of residents saying that they wanted renewable energy, compared to 14% who did not.

Fukushima also hosts a number of renewable energy organisations, in which the researchers seek to improve the technology and efficiency of renewables, such as solar photovoltaic, wind and geothermal energy. The prefecture has received support from Japan’s government and businesses to become a testing ground for renewable technologies.

Nine years after the catastrophe, anti-nuclear sentiment remains entrenched among Japanese people. A number of polls found that the vast majority of Japanese citizens have lost faith in nuclear power and favour the phasing out of nuclear plants. Preceding the disaster, Japan depended on nuclear energy for roughly 30% of its electricity. However, in 2018, nuclear contributed only 4.7% to the nation’s energy mix.

In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdowns, Japan shut down all of its operational 54 nuclear plants to undergo inspections and updates for more stringent safety requirements and has planned to restart 30 reactors in an attempt to make nuclear power account for up to 22% of its overall energy mix by 2030.

Still, the national plans to reactivate idled nuclear plants have progressed slowly, impeded partly by stiff resistance from local residents and a spike in the safety costs. Therefore, the country is predicted to miss its 2030 nuclear target, an analysis revealed.

The prefecture’s nuclear-to-renewables transition is happening at a time when researchers and governments around the world are discussing the importance of nuclear energy in reducing fossil fuel emissions and tackling the climate crisis. Japan’s stall in emissions reduction commitments have been criticised. 

The country recently unveiled its plans for tackling global warming, leaving carbon reduction targets largely unchanged from its existing commitments in 2015 towards the Paris Agreement. Its targets, a 26% reduction in emissions by 2030, are classified as ‘highly insufficient’ by the Climate Action Tracker analysis; if all government targets were at this level, global warming would exceed 3°C by the end of the century.

Once an avid proponent of climate action, Japan has appeared lukewarm in its commitments at UN meetings in recent years. The country is now taking on fossil fuels by settling for weak targets and regulations to fund coal, something that would lead to economic and environmental ruin, said Kimito Hirata of the Kiko network, a climate group in Japan.

However, renewable technological development has yet to be able to meet a region’s continuous energy demand. That means phasing out and rejecting the construction of new nuclear plants, a carbon-free and reliable energy source, may encourage countries to turn to fossil fuels for reliable energy supply, something which cannot happen if the world wants to decrease its emissions. In 2018, Japan generated around 17% of its energy from renewables and around 78% from fossil fuels and remains one of the only developed countries still building new coal-fired power stations.

There is still an opportunity for Japan to modify its targets, however, and will be further discussed at the United Nation climate talks, Cop26, which were postponed to 2021. 

However, if Japan wishes to make the shift to fully renewable energy, it must hold Fukushima accountable for its promises and apply it to the rest of the country.

Featured image by: Jeanne Menjoulet

The upcoming Olympic games in Japan have renewed interest in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 2011. The country has been working to ‘revive’ Fukushima and improve people’s perceptions of the prefecture ahead of the games. Meanwhile, there are calls to invest in nuclear energy as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. Can nuclear still be trusted to fill the gap? 

After the disaster in Fukushima, several countries, including Japan and Germany, saw a decline in public acceptance towards nuclear energy. As a result, these two countries started to abandon nuclear energy, using fossil fuels as the primary replacement energy source. However, according to a report by the International Energy Agency, there needs to be a ‘substantially expanded role’ for nuclear energy if the world is to meet both the demands for energy and reducing greenhouse gases. 

Agneta Rising, Director General of World Nuclear Association, commented, “Nuclear will have an important role in supplying clean, reliable electricity that is delivered 24/7, so that people can meet their needs and aspirations without harming the environment.”

According to the report, the global nuclear industry has set the target to supply 25% of the world’s electricity by 2050, which would require a tripling of nuclear generation from 2017’s levels. From the report, however, the supply of nuclear energy is only set to double during this period, which will harm efforts to shift to low- and zero-carbon energy generation technologies. 

As such, decisions to denuclearise by Japan and Germany, the 5th and 6th largest emitters of carbon dioxide respectively, makes it more difficult to achieve this low- and zero-carbon future. Hence, there is a need to quell public fear of nuclear energy and educate the masses about its benefits. Below are some reasons for this fear and the benefits of nuclear energy. 

Nuclear Energy: Pros and Cons

Negative connotations associated with nuclear energy 

Understandably, when one thinks of nuclear energy, one thinks of tragedy, such as the atomic bombs that ended World War II and nuclear disasters such as those in Chernobyl and Fukushima. However, nuclear energy remains the safest method of power generation. When comparing the impacts of the climate change-amplified Australian bushfires and Typhoon Hagibis with the Fukushima nuclear meltdown caused by an earthquake that is estimated to occur only once every 500 years, the decision to denuclearise becomes irrational as the aforementioned incidents caused more harm.

As the news of nuclear plants operating smoothly is far less sensational than nuclear disasters and North Korea’s nuclear threats, it is no surprise that the media covers the latter more often. As a result, these pessimistic events come to mind more readily and are thus assumed to be more common than it is. This is known as availability bias.

While consulting a variety of credible sources about nuclear energy is the best way to improve one’s understanding of it, not everyone has the time or the inclination to do so. This results in the continual bad impression of the word ‘nuclear’.

Radiation leakages after meltdowns

In the unlikely event of a nuclear meltdown, radionuclides are released, which emit high levels of radiation. While this can cause cancer, the doses required are very high. Even in Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster thus far with a 36-hour delay in evacuation of residents, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure. Similar observations have been noted for the 2011 Fukushima disaster

Ironically, the fear of radiation is the biggest contributor to deaths. The displacement of citizens during the Fukushima disaster caused a significant shift in lifestyle habits, ones characterised by inactivity and confinement. This results in impaired physical, mental and social well being, increasing rates of obesity, suicide and alcohol abuse. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts where those who fear death from radiation die sooner from another infliction. 

Is nuclear energy safe?

As mentioned previously, nuclear energy is the safest form of energy generation, but the extent to which this is the case is not well-known. According to a paper comparing the deaths caused by accidents and air pollution per Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity generated for brown coal (the dirtiest form of coal), coal, oil, gas and nuclear plants, the rates are around 32.72, 24.80, 18.43, 2.82 and 0.022 respectively. 

To put the numbers into perspective, the world used around 23 000 TWh in 2018. Assuming 5 scenarios where the world produced all its electricity using each of the respective 5 fuels mentioned above, brown coal would result in 752 560 deaths; coal with 570 400 deaths; oil with 423 890 deaths; gas with 64 860 deaths and nuclear with 506 deaths. Even without considering the long-term health effects, environmental damages and social problems caused by fossil fuels, it is clear that nuclear generation is the safer option.

Benefits of nuclear energy 

Conducting a cost-benefit analysis would determine whether the adoption of nuclear energy generation is an economically feasible decision. The estimated direct costs of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown is around $75 billion. However, the purchase of fossil fuels for energy generation would cost over $200 billion, and this is not taking into account the extraction and burning costs of these fossil fuels. Many countries, including Ireland and Saudi Arabia, are seriously considering the adoption of nuclear energy, considering the environmental and economic benefits it brings.

In general, there are 3 alternative pathways nuclear energy can evolve into: alternative design, size or process.

Alternative design refers to newer generations of generators, such as Generation III or IV. Generation III reactors are already available commercially and boast better safety, efficiency and costs savings than its predecessors. Generation IV reactors have similar improvements and the benefit of having a closed fuel cycle. This means that any nuclear waste generated by the plant can be reprocessed and reused as fuel, significantly reducing the total amount of waste generated.

Alternative sizes link to physical size and amount of energy generated. These are known as Small and Medium Reactors (SMRs). Due to their size, they offer more flexibility in their placements, be it building multiple SMRs to power a city or a remote village. SMRs can also be mass produced, making it cheaper by lowering initial investment costs.

Alternative processes consider other ways that nuclear energy can be generated. To date, all nuclear-related discussions have been about nuclear fission, where a large atom splits into smaller ones, releasing energy in the process. Scientists are looking at ways to generate energy using nuclear fusion, where two small atoms fuse to produce a larger atom which also releases energy. Since nuclear fusion is more efficient than fission, a successful implementation would ensure a constant source of energy. 

However, many of these technologies still require years of testing before being commercially available. In the meantime, a change in mindset over the word ‘nuclear’ is necessary to allow for a more rapid adoption of these technologies once they are ready. Thus, it is important to educate the public of its necessity and benefits. As philanthropist Bill Gates said, Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”

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