(Bloomberg) — Twelve years after one of the worst nuclear disasters in history shook Japan and turned the public against atomic power, a global energy crisis is encouraging the country to switch its reactors back on.
Faced with rising heating bills this winter after a sweltering summer spent worrying about blackouts, more people are now reappraising the benefits of cheaper and more stable energy. Even some of those living near nuclear plants are looking beyond their fears of another radioactive disaster.
“The rising power bills are really painful. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tsutomu Hirayama, a 56-year-old hotel owner in Tomioka, a coastal town between the now-decommissioned Fukushima Dai-ichi and its sister plant Dai-ni, both run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. “Given the current economic downturn, rising prices and surge in fuel costs, I wonder if there’s any choice but to use nuclear power in order to survive.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is one of several world leaders aiming to ramp up the use of nuclear power, with plans to restart more reactors that have been standing idle since the 2011 Fukushima crisis. The massive earthquake and tsunami led to nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant and brought all of the nation’s reactors to a halt while the government checked them for safety. Most of them are still not in use, as successive governments avoided pushing for quick restarts amid strong public opposition.
Such resistance, however, is now waning. An Asahi Shimbun survey this month showed 51% supported the restart of reactors compared with 42% against, outweighing opponents for the first time since the national daily began polling on the topic after the disaster. An August poll by the mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun showed similar results.
With a considerable proportion of the public still anti-nuclear, the issue is still far from settled. Before it can turn on all 33 commercially available reactors, the government faces multiple obstacles, including more regulatory reviews and consensus building at the local level.
Yet, the energy crisis has emboldened Kishida’s drive to boost energy security and self-sufficiency. Resource-scant Japan imports almost all of its energy from abroad. Turning on all its reactors, while unlikely for years, could help the country save trillions of yen in fuel imports and lower its reliance on coal.
In addition to restarts, Kishida is calling for the building of next-generation reactors and extending the lifespan of older ones. The government’s promise to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 is part of a global drive against climate change, but at home, the prime minister has positioned nuclear revival as part of his “green transformation” platform for more sustainable growth.
Japan’s shift is emblematic of a broader struggle by governments across the world grappling with surging energy costs, exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron last year announced a U-turn from his earlier commitment to cutting back on reactors. Germany, which vowed to phase out atomic energy in the wake of Fukushima, had to scramble to plug a shortfall in Russian gas.
China and the UK are looking to boost nuclear power in their energy mix in a bid to reach climate goals. Others like South Korea, Philippines, India and Indonesia are also raising their nuclear ambitions to meet the needs of their burgeoning economies.Japan’s turnabout is also remarkable simply because of the traumatic shadow cast by Fukushima — the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 and one which turned the nation into one of the most nuclear-averse in the world. Tens of thousands were displaced due to the catastrophe, and many are still living in temporary housing projects or are struggling to build livelihoods elsewhere.
Hirayama, too, had his life turned upside down on March 11, 2011. He had just returned to his hometown two years earlier to take over the small hotel from his aging parents, after pursuing a career in Tokyo’s music industry.
The hotel was inland enough that it was spared the tsunami’s deluge. But with electricity and phone lines down, the area was cut off from the outside world, including details of what was happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi. He spent the first few days cleaning debris and looking after guests, while outside the blackout zone, millions were gripped in fear as the disaster unfolded on live television.
It was only a few days later when Hirayama evacuated to stay with relatives in Iwaki, a city south of Tomioka, that he was able to catch up on details of how a power failure at the plant prevented back-up generators from cooling radioactive fuels, leading to meltdowns and hydrogen explosions. People in Tokyo were fleeing to cities further west such as Osaka, in fear of the radiation fallout.
He remembers the fear of driving home to retrieve his belongings in the midst of such confusion, pulling on a poncho and a facemask in hopes they’d guard against radioactive contamination. While the power plant was a dominant presence during his childhood, a place where his classmates’ fathers worked, he understood little about its risks or radiation.
“The majority of us realized only after the disaster how dangerous the power plant was,” he said. Another difficult moment was when Tomioka was officially declared part of a no-entry zone, within a 20-kilometer radius of the wrecked nuclear site. Not knowing whether he could ever see his family home again, he sat in his car and wept.
He ended up staying in Iwaki for years, running a website for fellow evacuees. When restrictions were eased in 2017, he was among the first to return full time. The hotel has catered to those working on reconstruction and decontamination — the painstaking work of cleaning gutters, drainpipes, and removing possibly contaminated soil.
Many of his former neighbors, though, aren’t coming back. A recent visit to Tomioka showed some signs of life returning, with supermarkets and clinics in the town center open for business. But decrepit and abandoned buildings dotted the quieter parts of town, and in one deserted convenience store, a calendar from 2011 still hung on the wall while products were left strewn on the floor.
Few local residents were walking the streets and some areas were still cordoned off for decontamination. The roads were paved with new asphalt but most of the drivers appeared to be construction workers, who were also the main customers at restaurants and gas stations.
At the town’s newly rebuilt train station, visitors were greeted with a monitor flashing current radiation levels.
Hirayama, who now operates a community center informing visitors about the area’s history, said he recognizes the reactor had been a pillar for the local economy. As the global oil crisis of the 1970s prompted Japan to embrace atomic energy, the reactors, along with coal-powered thermal power plants, brought funding and stable employment to a region known for its remoteness and cold climate. Local farmers no longer had to work as migrant laborers during the winter months.
He’s still opposed to some aspects of using nuclear energy, including the accumulation of spent fuel. But he acknowledged it could ease the pain of rising energy costs and a weaker yen.
“We need to survive this economic downturn and rising inflation,” he said.
Before Fukushima, 54 nuclear reactors fulfilled about 30% of Japan’s electricity needs, and the government had aimed to raise it to 50%. Now, only 10 of the 33 operable reactors are back online, producing less than 10% of the country’s power.
The 33 units have a combined power capacity of 33 gigawatts, and — if running at full force — would be enough to cover roughly one-fourth of the country’s power needs. That’s also nearly enough to replace all of its coal-generated power, according to calculations based on data from commodities-focused research provider BloombergNEF. Such an instant fix is unlikely due to the lengthy process required for each restart and because plants normally operate at lower-than-full capacity. But turning on just one nuclear reactor can save Japan from importing a million ton of LNG per year, the government estimates.
Kishida has said he wants to gradually switch on seven more reactors starting this summer to avoid risk of blackouts. Those include the No. 2 unit at Onagawa, the closest atomic plant to the 2011 quake’s epicenter. Its restart has already won the consent of the governor of Miyagi, the prefecture where Onagawa is located. A recent survey by a Miyagi-based newspaper showed 53% approved of restarting Onagawa No. 2, exceeding disapproval for the first time.
Turning on those seven would give Japan’s nominal GDP a boost of around 600 billion yen annually, estimates Kazuma Kishikawa, an economist at Daiwa Institute of Research. Without such restarts, he said, the government will need to choose between scaling back its emission targets or exposing the power grid to instability.
“At the current state, Japan will have to sacrifice one over the other, unless it uses nuclear power,” he said.
The rise in support for nuclear energy comes amid a growing sense that Japan, once an economic juggernaut, is starting to fall behind.
After decades of slow growth and deflation, the country is seen slipping behind regional rivals in wages and GDP per capita. Sony Group Corp., despite its PlayStation success, has lost much of its cachet as a global technology leader, and no Japanese electronics maker has any significant share in the world’s smartphone market. And while cars made by Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. are global bestsellers, the companies lag far behind global competitors in electronic vehicles.
Satoru Mitobe, a 36-year-old community organizer, said it would be a shame if Japan squandered the advantages and know-how that came with having nuclear facilities.
“Japan won’t develop if it doesn’t take risks,” he said. “It will lose out on competition.”
He lives near the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant, the world’s biggest nuclear power station with an 8.2-gigawatt capacity. In a windswept coastal village facing the Sea of Japan, the location of the now-idled plant is just as remote as Tomioka.
“The countryside has no jobs, you can’t make a living, that’s the big reason everyone leaves,” Mitobe said. He’s now leading a non-profit organization taking on regional revitalization projects, and he’s seen first-hand how a lack of jobs in the area has led to depopulation. “If you have a stronger economy and increase options, that’s going to make a big difference for rural areas.”
Regulators, however, have been wary about Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the last remaining nuclear plant operated by Tepco. The plant was damaged by a magnitude-6.8 earthquake in 2007, and radioactive material leaked from the plant, leading to an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It’s also had some serious security breaches in more recent years, including an intruder detection system accidentally damaged by a contractor and left without repairs. Tepco said a worker entered the central control room inappropriately using a colleague’s ID. Following such lapses, regulators have forced the power plant to go through additional reviews, delaying a restart.
Opposition Still Strong
Such incidents, critics say, show that nuclear reactors are susceptible to human error as well as natural disasters. Some say earthquake-ridden Japan is no place for radioactive energy in the first place.
Lawyer Yuichi Kaido, a renowned anti-nuclear campaigner, is particularly concerned by the government’s push to keep aging reactors running. Japan has approved of a plan to extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors beyond a current limit of 60 years.
“It’s completely murderous to keep operating outdated reactors in an earthquake-prone country like Japan,” said Kaido, who’s taken on court cases against utilities and the government since the 1980s. Looking at the government’s shift today, “we’re going back to where we were before the 2011 disaster,” he said.
Tokai Dai-ni Power Station, in operation since the 1970s, is located in a densely populated town in Ibaraki prefecture and is the closest nuclear plant to Tokyo — making any disaster particularly dangerous, he said.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, founded after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, says Japan now has the most rigorous safety regulation in the world. Kaido, however, said it lacks teeth, unable to oppose political decisions. Most recently, the atomic watchdog refrained from weighing in on the issue of reactors’ lifespans, saying the matter was up to the government’s trade ministry.
There’s also the question of where radioactive waste from used nuclear fuel will go. Japan plans to reprocess the spent fuel to remove uranium and plutonium. It also plans to seal the highly radioactive waste in glass, enclose it in steel containers and bury it in bedrock more than 300 meters underground. Two villages in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido are currently candidates to host storage sites, but a debate over safety is still ongoing. And while some economists say that restarting existing reactors is a realistic and cost-efficient way for Japan to lower its emissions, the economics of building new plants is a highly divisive topic.
“Conventional nuclear power plants have a higher upfront cost than other power generating technologies due to higher equipment and construction costs,” said Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, head of Asia-Pacific at BloombergNEF. “The most economic option for Japan to reduce emissions from power generation is to maximize the restart of existing nuclear power plants while accelerating deployment of renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal.”
Critics also point out that construction of new reactors is often bogged down by repeated delays and cost overruns. The UK’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power station has been hit by delays, with costs spiraling to £32 billion ($38.5 billion) from an initial, 2016 estimate of £18 billion. France’s plan to build a new reactor in Flamanville, Normandy, is more than a decade behind schedule and about 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion) over budget, posing a challenge to President Macron.
Such calculations also don’t take into account the toll on people following disasters like Fukushima. Aside from cases of leukemia and thyroid cancer among disaster site workers acknowledged as related to radiation exposure, many nearby residents died as the stresses of evacuation worsened pre-existing conditions.
Restrictions in the area have mostly now been lifted, but that doesn’t mean communities will fully return. Many former Tomioka residents will likely take a stroll under the town’s famous Yonomori cherry blossom arcade when the trees are in full bloom this spring, but most will only be visiting. Around 50% of the former townspeople surveyed by the government last year said they have no plans to move back.
Produce including peaches and rice from Fukushima were shunned by consumers for years due to fears of radioactive contamination. Japan’s decision to release more than a million tons of treated water from the wrecked Dai-ichi plant starting this year have prompted local fishermen to protest, worried consumers will again avoid seafood such as flounder caught near Fukushima.
Despite such hardships, Hirayama said it was now hard to ignore the benefits of nuclear energy.
“It’s difficult for me to completely be against it when I know there will be people who can be helped by lower power bills,” he said. “I really wish there was some magical, new alternative energy that can make everyone happy.”
Mitobe, the community organizer in Kashiwazaki, said he was afraid of the impact of soaring energy bills on the country’s poorest.
“It hits low-income households especially hard,” he said. “In the end, if you don’t have economic power, you can’t lift up the livelihoods of people at the bottom.”
—With assistance from Stephen Stapczynski and Kazunori Takada.