Photo: Greg Webb / IAEA
In March 2011, Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters in recent history when a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people. This alone was devastating for the Tohoku region, but the aftermath was much worse.
“The nuclear accident followed, and I consider that more serious than the earthquake itself,” Kaoru Kobayashi, the mayor of Fukushima city, said.
The meltdown of the badly damaged Daiichi Nuclear Power Facility and the contamination of nearby land in Fukushima prefecture had wide-ranging, negative impacts. Several thousand people had to be evacuated, and nearly six years later, the cleanup is ongoing as the plant remains radioactive and dangerous.
Today, Fukushima is still recovering from both disasters — literally and figuratively –because the world now associates the region with nuclear catastrophe and little else. But several local leaders, such as Kobayashi and a growing number of residents, are taking control over their future through the expansion of locally controlled, renewable energy.
It is out of the ashes of the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster that we are seeing the sprouts of a renewable energy revolution that seeks to transform the economy of this region and potentially all of Japan.
Vulnerability and Devastation
It was a cruel reality: A power plant owned by outsiders, which provided power for outsiders, was the cause of massive devastation — yet it was Fukushima residents who suffered the consequences. But the impacts went far beyond the region immediately affected by the accident. In the months that followed, tourists stopped visiting Fukushima due to fear of radiation – even though the vast majority of the prefecture was safe. People even stopped buying produce from a region once famous for its high-quality rice and fruits.
“The agriculture industry was badly damaged by the nuclear plant accident, but a great part of the damage was caused by rumors,” Kobayashi said.
This put a spotlight on the vulnerability of the region. The Nuclear plant wasn’t providing much energy to locals; it was exporting it south, to the wealthy Tokyo region. The area’s many hydropower facilities were doing the same. Nearly all are owned and operated by outsiders, providing little benefit to locals.
Challenging the Energy Elite
Despite its vast solar, geothermal and wind energy resources, Japan has lagged behind other developed nations in expanding renewable energy. In 2011, Japan’s energy sector was under the control of a few large companies, such as Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which operated the Daiichi Plant. Bringing renewables to local communities was not on their agenda.
“The Japanese energy structure is a monopoly,” Tetsunari Iida, the director the Japan-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), said. “A small power elite, and small number of the people, decide everything secretly.”
They forced nuclear power on remote regions, such as Fukushima, through subsidies and overwhelming political power. Locals often had little say in the matter. This is partly why Japanese electricity prices are among the highest in the world. And that doesn’t even take into account the risks related to over-centralization.
“Relying on big, huge power companies is good and efficient – in the sense of generation,” Kobayashi said. “But once an accident happens, it affects a huge area – that’s the risk.”
That is exactly what happened in 2011, and the disaster changed how many Japanese people perceived the power sector. Before, most believed the government’s and industry’s arguments that nuclear power was a dependable, safe form of baseload energy. What happened at the Daiichi Plant, however, laid bare the lies and danger behind the energy monopoly.
“The Fukushima disaster really changed the people’s perception towards nuclear,” Iida said. “Before that, people were tricked into thinking nuclear was safe and cheap and green – more than 80 percent of the people were for nuclear,” Iida said.
“Currently, it is the complete opposite… 80 percent against Nuclear,” he added.
But the energy industry and their allies in the Central Government remain stubbornly stuck in the past, despite the massive financial burden of the Fukushima disaster. Cleanup costs — being borne by TEPCO and, increasingly, Japanese taxpayers — are now estimated to be $178 billion. And there is still no end in sight for the impacted region itself, as high radiation levels persist — another sign that the cleanup could take decades.
Daiichi is not unique – it is one of more than 50 nuclear plants across Japan, nearly all in rural regions. The 2011 earthquake was not unpredictable – it is a regular occurrence in Japan, a disaster-prone country. It isn’t out of the question that another similar earthquake could take place sooner rather than later. Yet, despite this risk, the country’s leaders want to return to the pre-2011 status quo, and once again make nuclear the king power of Japan.
“The nuclear mafia is currently trying to bring back the situation as it was before the Fukushima disaster,” Iida said. “But people are already aware.”
These powerful interests hope to reopen nuclear power plants and revive the industry as soon as possible. But if renewable energy comes online quick enough, it may make their plans unfeasible. And that may be exactly what’s happening.
After the Daiichi disaster, all Japan’s nuclear plants were shut down due to safety concerns. Unexpectedly, the country didn’t experience many blackouts or power shortages. Efficiency, not to mention new energy sources, more than filled the gap.
Renewables harbor the potential to make nuclear power unnecessary in Japan. According to ISEP, over 220 community power projects have sprung up across Japan since the 2011 disaster, and nowhere more so than Fukushima. Last year, at the first World Community Power Conference held in Fukushima, more than 600 people joined a declaration that states, quite simply, the potential for a bright future.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster told us that we should take into account the catastrophic risks of nuclear energy.
As we stand a tipping point of surge in renewable energy such as wind power and solar PV globally, which are inherently clean, eternal, inexhaustible, and being everywhere in the world, we have a chance to achieve 100% renewable future with energy efficiency, which can avoid the climate risk, the nuclear risk, security of supply risk, air pollution and many other hazards resulting from fossil or nuclear energies.
According to data provided by Fukushima city, 28 percent of the prefecture’s power already comes from renewable energy. The region hopes to see that number — which is already growing steadily — rise to 40 percent by 2030 and 100% by 2040. To make it happen, independent energy companies, like Iitate Power and Aizu Power, are all building solar, geothermal and hydropower facilities in Fukushima prefecture. Offshore wind is also expanding. There is even a renewable energy village near the contaminated zone. All these, Kobayashi believes, will make the region more resilient.
“Renewable energy can be generated in small areas, so if a huge disaster happens, still, they can generate electricity,” he said.
It won’t be easy, however, as the big power companies are unlikely to cede control without a fight. But as is the case across the rest of the world, renewables are surging in Fukushima. That’s a trend even the “nuclear mafia” can’t ignore.
“Globally, a big energy shift is now ongoing,” Iida said. “Wind and solar are growing exponentially, and getting cheaper and cheaper, and this is synchronizing with the change inside Japan.”
If all goes to plan, then perhaps someday we will no longer think of Fukushima as the contaminated site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, but as the clean energy capital of Japan, and a model for how to build a local, sustainable and profitable future.