Four years after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, Japan’s leaders and citizens still face many complex challenges. Among these, none is more complicated than the issue of nuclear power.
Concerns remain about the containment of radioactive waste and the progress of decommissioning the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Periodic media reports of radioactive water spilling into the Pacific Ocean have not inspired confidence. Instead, they directly undermine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong desire to restart Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors, which have been offline since the disaster.
There is still controversy about how to dispose of contaminated topsoil and other radioactive material scattered around Fukushima. Locals want their land decontaminated and habitable, and very few communities want a stockpile of radioactive waste in their backyard.
The level of uncertainty was patently obvious when the Science Council of Japan proposed that the radioactive waste material be stored at an above-ground facility for 50 years while officials and citizens devised a better option. But it has been difficult to find a locality willing to accept this material even in the short-term. Only in late February 2015 did Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori finally agree to establish interim storage facilities in the towns of Futaba and Okuma. The radioactive waste is to be permanently disposed of ‘outside the prefecture’ in 30 years’ time.
The other side of the coin is that as long as the reactors lay idle, Japan must supplement its energy needs with imported alternatives — mostly fossil fuels such as LNG, oil and coal. This puts pressure on Japanese businesses and consumers who must bear higher electricity costs. Given the volatility of fossil fuel prices, greater dependency represents an imminent threat to Abenomics and its objectives of stimulating investment and consumption. And Japan is unlikely to make any progress on greenhouse gas emission reductions if it continues shifting to carbon-based fuels.
It is a very difficult dilemma indeed: the Japanese people are concerned about nuclear safety, yet they do not want to pay higher electricity prices, nor do they want to backtrack on the country’s global leadership in climate change initiatives. For political leaders whose decisions are governed by electoral cycles, bold long-term initiatives such as committing to renewables are risky — something former prime minister Naoto Kan and the Democratic Party of Japan learned the hard way.
Read the whole article at East Asia Forum
Image by IAEA Imagebank on Flickr under the CC BY-SA 2.0.