We are approaching the 10th year since the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. It was an unprecedented accident that caused fuel meltdowns in three adjacent nuclear reactors, and according to various subsequent examinations, the accident which the entire world watched with bated breath for weeks after it occurred, was barely able to avoid the worst of it due to a series of coincidences.
The amount of radioactive materials released by the Fukushima disaster is estimated to be between one-tenth and one-fifth of the amount released by the Chernobyl disaster in the in the former Soviet Union in 1986.1 These radioactive materials were dispersed over a wide area of Japan, although varying amounts and nuclides. According to government surveys, accounted for about 3.4% of Japan’s total area was contaminated with radiation doses of 1mSv/year or more, even if it is limited in Fukushima Prefecture and the neighboring prefectures alone.2 1mSv per year set as the annual effective dose limit for the general public, and in the case of the Chernobyl accident, it is the level to which the “right to emigrate” applies. Although radiation has no geographical boundaries, such surveys are usually conducted on a regional basis. Hot spots in other parts of Japan are not known until they are only be found by happenstance through measurement. Further, there were at least 164 thousand people who had to evacuate within Fukushima Prefecture or to other regions because of the accident, and even now, 10 years later, close to 40 thousand people are still unable to return to their homes. Moreover, this number does not include the people who evacuated from except Fukushima Prefecture and those who voluntarily evacuated because of the nuclear accident.
This accident is still not over. There are ongoing investigations and debate on the impact the radiation released in this accident is having on people, living organisms, and the environment. There are diverging opinions, even among multiple government bodies, on the amount of radioactive material released and how much of the land has been contaminated. The precise number of people who evacuated due to the accident is unknown. It has also yet to be determined how the contaminated water and soil can ultimately be disposed of. This is all evidence that this accident is not yet over. More still, removal of the melted fuels that have collapsed inside of the destroyed reactors have yet to begin, however, the government and TEPCO have touted around 2050 as the goal to complete the decommissioning of the stricken reactors.
Eisaku Sato, who previously served as the governor of Fukushima Prefecture and had raised doubts about Japan’s nuclear energy policy, described, prior to the Fukushima accident, that the national government was promoting nuclear energy policy like a ‘bulldozer.’ The accident was a direct product of the way of promoting policy. I wonder if the reforms in Japan’s electricty system that took place over the last 10 years, such as the opening of the retail market and unbundling of utilities’ generation and transmission systems, are really leading to the future that everyone imagined we would have to change in 2011. Many uncertainties still remain, such as no obligatory labeling of power sources to allow consumers to select renewables, no power tracking systems in place, and transmission charges tacked onto electric bills to cover the clean-up costs of the Fukushima nuclear accident as well as the decommissioning of the reactors. Considering the confusion of the capacity market last year and the some weeks long hikes in the power prices over the year-end and New Year’s, the Japanese electricity market is still immature and feel like discomfort as if it is stuck in a frame.
The expansion of renewables is seeing a degree of success, such as with major growth of the proportion of non-hydroelectric renewable energy in the electrical supply from about 1% to over 10% in the eight-year period from 2012; however, the challenges to transition to 100% renewables, such as the cost disparity relative to the rest of the world, and the unresolved grid and market issues, remain significant.
As the 90% reduction in PV cost around the world in the past 10 years illustrates, the RE revolution has affected change in politics and the economy. Voices demanding action and raising the alarm on accelerating climate change, such as the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and its formal enforcement the following year, are growing in number. During the pandemic, European and North American countries are pushing for a ‘Green Recovery,’ urging that renewables is not only a decarbonization policy but also a new path to economic recovery. Japan, likewise, has neither the opportunity nor the funds to reinvest in its old energy policies.
There are also rising trends, not in the former one-way policies from the supply side, but of an energy turnaound prompted from the demand side. A number of prominent international companies have declared their intention to switch to 100% renewable energy one after another, and many companies in Japan have joined the movement. The Japan Climate Initiative, for which Renewable Energy Institute serves as secretariat with WWF Japan and CDP Japan, has also been active. The network started with 105 organizations in 2018, has now grown to more than 550. Now, in Japan, the number one and number two regulatory reform sought by companies are digitalization and expansion of renewables. Those two are the twin wheels of future energy policy.
However, since Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s “2050 Decarbonization Declaration” last October, we still hear some people saying that nuclear power is still necessary and that we have to rely on fossil fuel. In fact, Japan’s Green Growth Strategy for 2050 calls for renewables to account for 50-60% of the country’s electricity needs, actually it is the 2030 targets of other industrialized nations, with the remainder to come from nuclear power, thermal power with CCS, and hydrogen ammonia. I cannot help but feel that we continue down the same path, that we are actually going backwards.
We hope that we can look back on Japan’s progress over the past 10 years through this series of columns of intellectuals and look ahead to our future.