After 42 years, Japan goes nuclear-free

By Daniele Pestilli on May 5, 2012
Protests in Shibuya, Tokyo, against the use of nuclear energy. Image by: SandoCap (CC)

The devastating magnitude 9 earthquake that crippled Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant on March 11, 2011, claiming 15,854 lives, injuring 26,992, leaving 1.5 million without water, shredding 130,000 buildings and damaging almost 700,000, has also swept away public faith in nuclear power and the government's credibility.

As power plants have gradually been turned off for maintenance checks, the people's protests have tethered their re-ignition. Starting today, for the first time since May 1970, Japan will no longer have atomically generated electric power. For its routine check, HokkaTomari Nuclear Power Plantido Electric will be lowering its output at the third unit of Tomari Nuclear Power Plant starting at 5pm Japan local time and ending on Sunday. Tomari is Hokkaido's only nuclear power station.

The maintenance is mandatory once every 13 months for all nuclear reactors. In order for the systems to restart, the municipalities and prefectures as well as local authorities must agree to their re-ignition. Thus far, this has not been the case for the 50 plants in the archipelago, and will probably not be the case for Tomori's unit, either.

But as Japan's fierce summer approaches, many are concerned about power shortages within the nation. Al Jazeera says the supply could fall short of demand by 20%. In addition, increasing reliance on fossil fuels could increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 16%.

To make up for this shortage, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key ministers of his Cabinet are currently trying to restart Oi's offline reactors in Fukui Prefecture. However, Mainichi News explains that their decision has been met with fierce opposition from both the public and local governors of Kyoto, Shiga and the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto.

Mr. Hashimoto, whom the New York Times specifies is “the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster,” has won widespread public support for his staunch opposition to “the opaque, top-down authority that has characterized Japan’s postwar rise [which has resulted in failure to] fully inform the public of the radiation risks [the Fukushima disaster] posed.”

Protesting from the bottom up

Contesting authority has never been Japan's forte.

There are just several popular demonstrations that stand out, such as the worker and student demonstrations against the expansion of Tachikawa Air Base and other US military facilities or against the construction of Narita Airport during the '60s and '70s, the 2003 demonstrations against Japan's participation in the Iraq war and the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant protests that called for government and media transparency. Other minor protests and rallies have been held, but not nearly on the same scale.

The demonstrations that took place months after Fukushima Dai-ichi's failure as well as the ones that have been taking place in the past few days are significant. The former were especially critical of Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government, and played a pivotal role in his resignation. Former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda eventually took his place.

The more recent, “Occupy” type protests are significant because not only are they posing a rare challenge to Tokyo's authorities by demanding a shift in government policy, but they are also posing a threat to the companies that run the plants such as TEPCO, or Hokkaido's monopolistic electric company, HEPCO. By extension, they hamper globally significant conglomerates such as Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba from functioning, since these companies rely on said energy.

Nuclear energy was one of the engines in postwar Japan that provided jobs, new opportunities and allowed Japanese cities to expand to gargantuan dimensions while remaining extraordinarily connected with high-speed trains and railways. The lack thereof in an already heavily indebted economy will be something countries worldwide will be closely scrutinizing.

Whether the lackToru Hashimoto of nuclear energy will cut or augment jobs, cripple or stimulate the Japanese economy or lead to other developments is yet to be observed. What has certainly changed in this era of nuclear disasters paired with Occupy Wall Street movements and the Arab Spring, is Japan's attitude towards contesting authority. Symbolizing this new phenomenon is Mr. Hashimoto’s revolt: this, according to the New York Times, has “rattled [Tokyo's leaders] enough to reverse Japan’s long-established power dynamic. Instead of receiving local leaders in the capital, they pleaded their case in person — in the Fukui prefectural seat, near Ohi.”

In a broader sense, the people have seen for themselves that change is possible from the bottom, up. Submissiveness is not a must.

Neighbors

Shutting down its last nuclear reactor is a victory for Japan. Unfortunately, as the East Asia Gazette previously pointed out, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear complex that holds the leading position in the world for nuclear technologies announced that following the Fukushima incident, not a single order for the construction of plants was canceled or revoked.

The South Korean news agency, Yonhap News released an article on 4 May indicating that the construction of two new nuclear reactors has started at the Uljin power plant in North Gyeongsang Province. These will be made of all Korean technology.

According to the IAEA website, there will be a total of 28 nuclear power plants in South Korea by 2016: 21 in operation and 7 under construction. Nuclear energy will account for 30.3% of Korea's energy, 67.9% will be fossil fuel and 1.6% will be hydro-electric power. At the UN meeting on Nuclear Safety on September 22, 2011, President Lee Myung-bak said, “I do not think that the Fukushima accident should be cause to renounce nuclear energy; on the contrary, this is a moment to seek ways to promote the safe use of nuclear energy based on scientific evidence.” He clarified, “We will actively utilize nuclear energy in accordance with our 'low carbon, green growth' policy.”

In a report by Voice of America, not only is Korea building more atomic power plants, it is also increasing exports of its technology. It has already made deals with countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Vietnam and is looking to strike more deals in China, Romania and Turkey.

As of February 2012, China has 16 reactors in operation and 26 under construction. This will bring it to 42 reactors, which is not far behind Japan's 50 plants.

According to the Japan Times, the Environment Minister Goshi Hosono will soon meet with his Chinese counterpart Zhou Shengxian to create a framework for dialogue between the two countries' nuclear industries. Japan intends to inform China of its past accidents in order to help Beijing tackle its five-year economic development program more effectively, to which China has appeared to respond positively.