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The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Put Japan’s Climate Policy in a Decade-Long Purgatory

Ten years after the meltdown, the country’s nuclear reactors remain shut down, and there’s no clear path to reducing emissions to net zero.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
An anti–nuclear power protester in England in 2012

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Okuma, Japan, on March 11, 2011, was one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Some of the impacts can be easily quantified: 150,000 people were evacuated due to the threat of radioactivity, a forced migration that resulted in some 2,600 deaths; a full cleanup could take $70 billion and more than 40 years; 100 cubic meters of groundwater become contaminated at Fukushima every day; according to Greenpeace, radiation levels near reopened areas reach 30 times the recommended exposure levels. Other forms of damage, such as the long-lasting stigma on the region and the psychological and mental health strain on evacuees, don’t show up in statistics.

But one of the most dramatic consequences of the disaster was that it overturned Japan’s energy policy—as well as the country’s prospects of swiftly countering climate change. Pre-Fukushima, nuclear power represented the largest portion of Japan’s power-generation mix, at nearly 30 percent. The government had planned to increase that share to 41 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2030, as part of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions. After 3/11, as the disaster is commonly known, the nation instantly shut down 20 percent of its nuclear capacity, and by May 2012, Japan was generating no nuclear power. Fears of a repeat of Fukushima run so deep that today the country has only a single reactor in use. And though nuclear power is controversial among environmentalists in Japan and around the world, what has replaced it is the dirtiest forms of energy generation. Over the past decade, use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, has leaped, and now fossil fuels make up a larger proportion of Japan’s energy mix than they did in 2010.

“Three-eleven resulted in sidelining nuclear and a massive increase in fossil fuel use,” said Andrew DeWit, a professor in the School of Economic Policy Studies at Rikkyo University. “It also derailed the plan to use nuclear to decarbonize and increase energy security.”

Traditionally, environmental groups around the world have opposed nuclear power due to its health and environmental risks, but as the urgency of the need to address climate change and pivot away from coal has increased in recent years, more groups have become open to nuclear power in the United States. In Japan, experts maintain that the country’s small size, high density, and mountainous geography make building renewable energy infrastructure, like large hydroelectric plants, difficult, especially in a short time frame. Officially, the government says that nuclear power needs to play a significant role in getting Japan to carbon neutrality by 2050, a goal Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga committed to in a speech last month. But the path forward is murky. Suga remains hesitant to suggest that Japan will ramp up its use of nuclear power, neglecting to discuss whether Japan will restart its inactive nuclear plants in his meeting with the Diet, the country’s legislative body. “I am not considering building new nuclear plants at this point,” Suga said.

That suits environmental activists, who have long opposed nuclear power, in part because the risk of disasters like 3/11 is too great. “Ending nuclear power in Japan is our first priority,” said Keiko Ogata, a leader in the Nagoya Green Party. “We believe that nuclear is even more dangerous than greenhouse gases, especially because of all the earthquakes [in Japan]. But we need to urgently address both of these issues.”

“Nuclear power cannot be a pillar in response to climate change, whether in Japan or internationally,” said Shaun Burnie, a nuclear specialist at Greenpeace. “Nuclear power remains too slow to construct, too expensive, and with major risks from accidents, nuclear proliferation, and waste.”

The nuclear meltdown deeply impacted Japanese public opinion. Polls show that 30 percent of the public believes nuclear power is either necessary or important, down from 50 percent in 2010. As little as 10 percent of the Japanese public wants to return nuclear power to its levels of usage pre-3/11.

Support for nuclear power among climate activists has fallen, as well. “We learned and believed that nuclear energy was unconditionally good,” said Soma Kondo, an organizer with Climate Youth Japan. “Because CO2 emissions were the biggest problem, nuclear power was great. It was shocking to see that flip on its head, and we’re still nervous about how we can get by without nuclear energy.” Climate Youth Japan now takes an accordingly ambiguous stance, supporting the use of nuclear energy with stringent safety regulations but opposing the construction of new plants.

That sea change in attitudes explains Suga’s evasiveness on the nuclear question. But it’s unclear how decarbonization without nuclear power could work.

“Even the Japanese Photovoltaic Association and Wind Association have nuclear in their respective power-mix scenarios, in order to make the numbers work,” said DeWit. “Japanese public finances are in dire straits, and social security costs are climbing because it’s the world’s most rapidly aging society.” Any path to decarbonization, he added, will have to take these problems into account.

Japan has the capacity to turn back to nuclear power if it wants to. There are 33 operable nuclear reactors across the country that are not in use, all waiting for the final call from local officials to restart operation. They have hesitated to give the go-ahead, even to plants that have undergone extensive safety reviews.

“Japanese utilities with nuclear assets spent around 1.3 trillion yen [about $12 billion] on facility upgrades, just in the first three years after Fukushima,” said Yuriy Humber, the managing director of Yuri Invest Research, a boutique energy research firm in Tokyo. “The industry is now locked in a kind of Sisyphus game, adding more and more safety features to the plants.… And then it gets rejected.”

Restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants seems a political impossibility, if not a technical one, at the moment, thanks to public opposition and an ambiguous response from the nation’s leadership. And despite investment and growth in renewables, Japan still lacks the technology and capacity to plug up the massive hole left when nuclear power was abandoned.

In his October speech, Prime Minister Suga emphasized moving away from coal. But natural gas, the most likely target for a transition, has its own problems, such as abundant methane leakages that make it even worse than coal in some circumstances. (Methane is a much more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)

“Achieving Japan’s 2050 GHG zero program will require a lot of energy, cooling, mobility technologies that are emergent or don’t yet exist,” DeWit said. “That is one reason the central government’s commitment is crucial. It’s the locus of financial and regulatory power that can foster accelerated melding of mitigation and adaptation.”

Japan does have some strengths to build on in its road to decarbonization. Carbon-offset programs offered by the Ministry of the Environment have improved the energy efficiency of industry and electrical infrastructure. Partnerships between governments and businesses to build green infrastructure have been highly successful and are growing fast. Japan has a bright future in offshore wind power and battery storage technology for renewables. Still, the 2050 goal will be challenging to meet.

“Some people have the view that we need to immediately stop using all fossil fuels. But that is not very feasible,” said Humber. “Without adequate battery storage facilities in place, without a flexible grid system, [that] would result in the kind of blackouts we saw in California earlier this year. Japan, like most other countries, does not have those other elements in place yet. The energy transition will take decades.”

Japan’s strong Nimby tendencies pose yet another barrier to both nuclear and renewables. “We need to achieve a better understanding of climate change by the public,” Kondo said. “People tend to oppose new development. There was even a lot of opposition to a new rule to charge customers for using plastic bags. If that way of thinking persists, it will be hard to achieve anything.”

“Japanese energy policy remains in crisis,” Greenpeace’s Burnie said. “Its renewable target lacks ambition, it remains too dependent on fossil fuels, it has weak climate targets for 2030, and retains an unrealistic share for nuclear power. Without a radical shift in policy, it will not secure large emissions reductions.”

Burnie points to proposals that avoid both nuclear and fossil fuels, such as an assessment from the Tokyo-based Renewable Energy Institute that details a more ambitious target of 40 percent renewables by 2030. (Japan currently gets about 10 percent of its power from renewables.)

A new decarbonization committee in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has begun exploring options for a more detailed strategy. While Japan has multiple paths to reaching net zero by 2050—nuclear, wind, solar, energy conservation, and new technologies are all on the table—none are surefire, and none are easy. Currently, Japan doesn’t seem inclined to pick any path in particular, and is stuck between its old nuclear-heavy strategy and fear of another 3/11.

“Japan has some excellent nuclear technology,” Humber said. “But even if the country overwhelmingly felt that it wanted to end use of nuclear power, then that’s the decision that has to take place. Where we’re at right now is a kind of purgatory.”