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Fukushima one year on: a quest for viable energy

In the wake of the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima, Japan has had to take a hard look at its energy production model. For the moment, there are more questions than answers. takes a closer look.


“Nuclear energy is now safer than it was a year ago,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on March 5 during a speech at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna. Amano continued, noting that his home country of Japan had travelled “a long road” since the Fukushima catastrophe of March 11, 2011.

His speech was meant to encourage a return to nuclear power in a country that has 54 nuclear reactors, but only two that currently function. Before the earthquake, there were talks about raising the share of nuclear power in Japan’s total electrical generation capacity from 27% to 50% by 2030; but Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda put the plan on the back burner last September.

“Japan is such a widely industrialized country that it is difficult to do without nuclear energy,” explained Evelyne Dourille-Feer, an economist at France’s Centre for International Prospective Studies. “Moreover, the balance of trade is unsettled by the price of imports, and eventually there will be an impact on public debt.”

These arguments seem to have swayed Japanese authorities, who have established new measures to reinforce the safety of certain reactors. Walls have been built around some power stations and reactors have been subjected to more intensive resistance tests.

An example in energy efficiency

For now, Japan, which has scarce fossil resources, is largely dependent on other countries for its power. In the wake of the accident, thermal power stations were activated and coal, natural liquefied gas, and fuel were imported – hence the commercial deficit that Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, registered in 2011 (for the first time since 1980).

Along with the increased reliance on thermal power in Japan, additional piecemeal solutions have been implemented over the past year. Faced with electricity shortages, the Japanese have had no other choice but to reduce their consumption. The government has successfully urged people to turn out lights and use environmentally efficient light bulbs, as well as encouraged commuters to avoid travel during rush hour. During the summer of 2011, Tokyo inhabitants reduced their electricity consumption by 18%, while those in the Fukushima region reduced theirs by 15%.

According to Dourille-Feer, Japan’s post-Fukushima handling of the energy situation is encouraging. “What Japan is going through is very serious, but you can also see it as a chance to innovate in terms of new energy sources and energy efficiency,” she said.

‘Fukushima was an electroshock’

According to Charlotte Mijeon, of anti-nuclear association “Sortir du nucléaire”, nuclear energy remains dangerous -- despite the extra precautions taken. “Fukushima was an electroshock and nuclear power is not as safe today as before,” she said. Mijeon argues that the danger is even greater in Japan, where there are frequent tsunami warnings. The Japanese population shares Mijeon’s wariness. In June 2011, a poll found that 75% of Japanese were in favour of abandoning nuclear power.

Meanwhile, the domain of renewable energy - considered a credible alternative – is developing rapidly. In September 2011, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda suggested “starting from scratch and presenting a new energy plan by next summer,” and emphasised renewable energy, as had his predecessor Naoto Kan. While in office, Kan signed a law that as of July 2012 would set attractive prices for wind, solar, hydraulic, and geothermal energy for the next 20 years.

There are indeed several options for energy development in Japan’s future. “It seems we're heading toward a mix of nuclear and other energy sources, but even a partial return to nuclear energy still needs to be approved by the Japanese population,” Dourille-Feer assessed, acknowledging that it is still too early to find a solution. “Japan is in a period of hesitation – they don’t yet know what to build and how to do it.”

Some answers can be expected this summer, when a government committee will meet to decide whether or not to pursue nuclear power in Japan, and to determine what the country's energy future will look like.

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