In the ten years since the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, I have had more opportunities to cover energy-related issues than ever before. What has emerged is a picture of changing world energy landscape and old-fashioned Japan. The gap between Japan and the rest of the world is widening, even as a "decarbonization revolution" takes shape in the face of a deepening climate crisis.
It was in 2013 that I visited the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant, located near the world’s first final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste, Onkalo. It is a huge plant with an output of 1,600MW and is being built by the French company Areva. It is the same type as the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) being built by AREVA in Flamanville, France.
Looking up at the high ceiling inside the huge 57-meter-diameter reactor building, a representative of the Finnish power company TVO said: “At the top of the reactor there is a water sprinkler system to cool the reactor in the event of an accident, and at the bottom there are four core catchers to catch core melt. The reactor building and some of the external power supplies are strong enough to withstand a collision with an aircraft in the event of a terrorist attack, and stress tests conducted by the European Union after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi showed no problems,” he told us. I was convinced that the claim that “the safety standards for nuclear power plants in Japan are the strictest in the world after the Fukushima accident” is false.
In Finland, there is a high level of acceptance of nuclear power and a high level of public trust in the regulatory authorities. A senior official at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy had expressed the hope that when the Unit 3 is operational, it would cover nearly 15% of Finland’s annual electricity consumption, reduce dependence on overseas power sources and contribute to energy security.
However, the planned start of operations in 2009 has been significantly delayed. Construction costs have also increased dramatically. It was not until March of 2021 that the regulator finally gave permission for the plant to start loading fuel. The delay has led to a legal battle between Areva and TVO.
In 2016, I had the opportunity to cover Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant, a similar reactor under construction in France. Developed by Areva and under construction by Electricite de France (EDF) since 2007, it will be France’s 59th nuclear power plant when completed. The reactor is also equipped with state-of-the-art safety equipment, including a core catcher, and the reactor building and power supply system are designed to withstand a passenger jet crashing into it. The cost of construction, however, has swelled from the initial estimate of 3.5 billion euros to 12.4 billion euros, or over 1.6 trillion Japanese yen. The completion of the plant has been delayed since the end of 2012, and the first load of fuel was finally approved in October last year. Transmission of electricity is not due to start until 2023.
The impact of these projects led to the virtual collapse of Areva, and the finanial crisis at EDF continues. Although the target year has been postponed from 25 to 35 years in order to strengthen measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, France has set a target of reducing its dependence on nuclear power from 70% to 50% and has begun to shift towards the expansion of renewable energy.
The huge debts of Westinghouse, Toshiba’s U.S. nuclear subsidiary, have shaken the company to its core and it withdrew from nuclear power plant construction. The construction of the controversial Olkiluoto 4 reactor in Finland, for which Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries bid, remain on hold. Hitachi withdrew from the U.K. nuclear power plant project, citing questionable profitability, and Vietnam, which had been expected to be a major nuclear export destination, abandoned its nuclear power plant plans. Currently, the international nuclear power plant market is largely dominated by Russia’s state owned company, Rosatom, with new nuclear plant construction concentrated in the former Soviet bloc and China. Globally, in 2020, five new nuclear power plants came online while six were decommissioned.
In contrast, in the last decade, the cost of renewable energy has fallen sharply, and unlike stagnating nuclear power, renewables continue to expand. The cost of wind power, now the cheapest form of energy, is less than 2 cents, or around 2.1 yen, per kilowatt-hour. According to British oil giant BP, electricity generated by renewables in 2019 was 2.8 trillion kilowatts, nearly three times Japan’s electricity consumption. Its share of the world’s total electricity generation increased to 10.4%, from 9.3% in 2018. It is not surprising that, for the first time in 2019, renewable energy surpassed nuclear energy in both total electricity generation and generating share. The winner between nuclear and renewable energy was made abundantly clear over these past ten years.
Backwards PolicyThe only thing that seems to be going against to these global trends is Japan's energy policy.
Though there has been some growth in renewables since the nuclear disaster, with the introduction of the feed-in tariff scheme and other developments, the share of renewable energy in total electricity generation and the supply target of 22-24% for FY2030 are still far below that of European countries.
While many countries and companies, including Japan’s, have set targets of 100% renewables, I am sure I was not the only one who could not believe my ears when I heard that the "reference level" for Japan's share of renewables was 50-60%, despite the country having declared its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.
Nuclear power is still positioned as "a well-established decarbonized power source, aiming to be used on a certain scale, with safety as a major premise," and the power companies continue to invest heavily in it. The energy mix for FY2030, which is currently under review, nuclear power is expected to account for around 20% of the energy mix.
Depencence on coal-fired power, which should be the first to be phased out in order to achieve decarbonization, continues. And the share of coal-fired thermal power generation, which was 10% in 1990, has now exceeded 30%, the highest among the seven industrialized nations (G7) member states. With the advent of the Biden administration in the U.S., which has pledged to achieve a "carbon free power supply by 2035," Japan is now the only country in the G7 that has not announced a plan to phase out coal. Considering the UN Secretary-General’s call on the G7 to end coal by 2030, Japan is certain to face a tough challenge at this year’s G7 summit in the UK, unable to break free from its dependence on coal.
Japan has completely lost out on the rapidly expanding solar and wind power business opportunities and is left with only the losing technologies of nuclear and coal-fired power. By continuing to invest in domestic nuclear power plants and construction of new coal-fired power plants, Japan is steadily building a stockpile of stranded assets.
“If nuclear power is shut down, electricity prices will rise and carbon emissions will increase, so support for nuclear should recover in time.” In the immediate aftermath of the accident, this was heard from the “nuclear power village.” But it seems that this optimistic forecast has failed. Carbon emissions continue to fall, and opinion polls show that the majority of people still want the phase out of nuclear power. Instead we have nuclear-related scandals continuing apace, and restoring the public’s trust is a long way off.
In 2017, The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant without much debate, stating that TEPCO had the competence to operate the nuclear plant, but this view was completely contradicted by TEPCO's recent sloppy safety management, which left inadequate counter-terrorism measures in place for a long time. Questioning TEPCO is obvious, but this incident should also starkly call into question the handling of the matter by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which overlooked the problem for so long.
What Is Being QuestionedOver the past decade, the nuclear industry has done little to regain the trust of the public. The fact that the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) and the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC), which are responsible for the high-level radioactive waste issues that is very critical for nuclear power in this country, are headed by the same people who, as heavyweights of the “nuclear power village,” promoted nuclear power policy up until the accident, makes it impossible to restore trust.
Marking ten years since the nuclear accident, an important question that must be asked by all concerned, including those in the media, is why Japan has strayed so far from the will of the people and has continued to maintain such an undemocratic energy policy.
Even at this very moment, the energy policy and energy mix, which is relevant not only to the future of Japan but also the future of the planet, and the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2030 that will be based on the policy, are being decided by the ministries concerned, a specific group of politicians, and members of major corporations with discussions taking place behind closed doors.
If this is allowed to continue, future generations will be left not only with a deficit in the national treasury, but also with a debt in the form of environmental damage and a huge stranded asset. It is a double and triple injustice.
The decade since the Fukushima disaster has raised a question. It is the state of democracy in Japan. It is the great responsibility of the current generation, who have been responsible for the tragic nuclear accident, to correct it through the power of citizens and public opinion.