Japan veers away from nuclear power

After the earthquake and subsequent disaster at Fukushima, Japan vows to increase its use of alternative energy sources.

    Japan's government has announced they will shut down Hamaoka nuclear plant, while working towards increasing their alternative energy use from one per cent to 20 per cent [GALLO/GETTY]

    Prime minister Naoto Kan's decision to stop the building of new nuclear power plants and explore solar and wind energy signals a drastic turn in Japan's energy policy that has brought a sigh of relief to wary scientists, anti-nuclear groups and an increasingly anxious public.

    Kan also announced Tuesday the shutting down of the reactors at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Shizuoka prefecture 200 kilometres north of the capital Tokyo, which scientists predict to be due for a massive earthquake. Reactors one and two have already been closed for repairs.

    "The burning issue in Japan is how to deal with nuclear energy, which is now a major source and therefore pits economic interests over safety," said Hiroaki Koide, a professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute. "The decision by Kan to suspend Hamaoka sends a critical message towards change."

    Koide has long lobbied against nuclear power, arguing that the technology that depends on nuclear fusion is too dangerous for Japan.

    The argument against nuclear power was bolstered on March 11 when a massive earthquake and tsunami hit north-eastern Japan and damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant. A 30-kilometre radius around the area had to be cleared and communities displaced, to avoid the risk of radioactive contamination.

    Nuclear dependence

    Japan currently has 54 nuclear reactors, heavily subsidised by public funds. The Hamaoka plant, which contains six reactors, started operations in 1976 and continued to expand till 1987. Chubu Electric Company, the second largest utility in Japan, operates the Hamaoka plant.

    On the heels of Kan's decision is a bill establishing a Feed-in Tariff policy now pending in the Japanese Diet. When enacted, the new regulation will, for the first time, pave the way for new companies to enter the energy business not only through state subsidies but also by selling power to big companies that had hitherto controlled the energy sector.

    Hisayo Takada, energy expert at Greenpeace Japan, explained the new policy will revitalise the current power business, which is controlled by a select group of eight big companies.

    "The bill should be passed in the Diet in June. Up to now financial subsidies were only extended for construction of new power plants. But by allowing newcomers to also enter the lucrative energy business, there will be renewed interest to invest in alternative renewable sources," she said.

    Opponents of nuclear power have long pointed to Japan's vulnerability to earthquakes - 20 per cent of the world's total occurs here - and density of the population near coastal areas that is flat, arable land comprising just one-tenth of the mountainous country.

    Still, conservative politicians, bureaucrats and business sectors have pursued the technology based on the assumption that nuclear energy is efficient and viable in resource-poor Japan that has no other alternatives. Nuclear power, now providing 30 per cent of electricity, is also touted as the best way to reduce greenhouses gases.

    New direction in energy

    But the country's energy policy is headed for a new direction, following the March 11 disaster. Led by Kan, Japan will embark on a complete overhaul of the national target, a landmark change against a policy that aimed to increase nuclear power supply to 50 per cent of overall consumption.

    Instead, Kan issued sobering statements to the press. He pledged his cabinet will spearhead a campaign to expand alternate energies such as solar and wind power to 20 per cent, up from the current one percent, of the country's energy needs.

    The decision comes against a new report by the United Nations panel on climate change issued on Monday that projected 80 per cent of the world's nuclear energy supply could be met by renewable energy.

    Local activists in Hamaoka are delighted. Yukie Tokura, who started Stop Hamaoka Nuclear Plant only last month after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, said Kan has taken a huge step in the right direction.

    "I was so happy today that I promptly called Chubu Electric Company and thanked them for suspending Hamaoka operations," she said. Tokura lives 20 kilometres away from the plant in Shizuoka prefecture.

    "For decades I had lived close to the nuclear plant and was not worried too much. But Fukushima was a wake-up call which is why I started my protest organisation," she explained.

    In a sign of the growing anxiety in the country, Tokura's site has now more than 6,400 petitions, which she has presented to Chubu Electric Company.

    Despite what activists applaud as a key direction in Japan, moving away from nuclear power is expected to be no easy feat.

    For example, Chubu Electric Company employs at least one third of the local population living close to Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. Shutting down the reactors will mean a loss of personal income and will also affect the local factories that are bracing for power cuts.

    Bu Takada points out that the Fukushima accident has illustrated enormous costs, in terms of financial and human loss, so that the argument nuclear power is good for the economy is fast losing steam.

    "Our research has shown that Japan with its green technology innovation can do well without nuclear power. The only thing that was needed was strong leadership. Maybe Kan means what he says," she said.

    A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.




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