Legacy of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Asia World

Author: Tatsujiro Suzuki, Nagasaki University

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On the surface, Japan seems to have learned a tough lesson and made a number of changes to its energy policy. But unresolved issues still haunt the country’s future nuclear prospects.

Yuji Onuma, an evacuee from Futaba Town near tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, walks next to a collapsed shop on the street in Futaba Town, inside the exclusion zone around the plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, 20 February 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

Yuji Onuma, an evacuee from Futaba Town near tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, walks next to a collapsed shop on the street in Futaba Town, inside the exclusion zone around the plant, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, 20 February 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

The share of electricity supplied by nuclear energy dropped radically from 25 per cent in 2010 to only 6 per cent in 2020. At the time of the disaster, 54 reactors were operating. Since then, only nine reactors restarted and 24 are scheduled for decommissioning.

Public opinion has changed dramatically. Before the accident, 87 per cent of the public supported nuclear power as necessary, but by 2013 the figure dropped to 24.9 per cent. Today, only 12.3 per cent are in favour of nuclear power and 60.6 per cent think that nuclear power should be either phased out or shutdown immediately.

Yet the government and nuclear industry have hardly changed attitudes towards nuclear power. The latest Strategic Energy Plan published in 2018 states that, while Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear power ‘as much as possible’, it should maintain nuclear power as a baseload electricity source. And Japan is still aiming for a nuclear power share of 20–22 per cent by 2030 — an unrealistic goal given the difficulties faced in restarting existing plants.

On 25 December 2020, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry released a report detailing Tokyo’s ‘Green Growth Strategy’ towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. This ambitious industrial policy includes nuclear power as a ‘growth sector’ and mentions ‘small modular reactors’ and ‘nuclear power for hydrogen production’ as part of the energy solution.

Before Japan can realistically consider the future of nuclear power, it must first address the legacy of the Fukushima disaster and past nuclear power developments. Polarisation between pro and anti-nuclear actors over the question of whether nuclear power should be phased out means that there has been little constructive debate.

There are at least three major issues that Japan must deal with — the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactors and the reconstruction of Fukushima, improving nuclear waste and spent fuel disposal management, and regaining public trust through transparency in energy policymaking.

Decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors is a significant challenge, especially given that the crisis is not over until decommissioning is complete. A large earthquake on 13 February 2021 was a stark reminder that the site still poses a significant risk. Tokyo Electric Power Company, responsible for managing the site, reported that the water levels of the primary containment vessels in units 1 and 3 dropped after the earthquake — an event that could have released radioactive material.

Reconstruction and restoring the lives of evacuees is still a work in progress. 25,000 remain away from home despite government announcements allowing return. Contaminated soil is not fully cleared and compensation claims are still being processed.

The economic consequences are still growing. According to estimates by the Japan Economic Research Center, total accident costs could rise to 80 trillion yen (US$750 billion) — and there is still no plan to deal with the melted fuel debris and other accident-related radioactive waste.

Japan has yet to find a solution to the disposal of radioactive waste. Tokyo currently maintains a nuclear fuel cycle policy that recovers plutonium and uranium from spent fuel, a material that is not designated as waste in Japan. As of 2019, Japan has 45.5 tons of separated plutonium — 8.9 tons are held domestically and 36.6 tons are at facilities in Europe. This stockpile of fissile materials could be equivalent to more than 5000 nuclear bombs and is a major source of international concern. Japan’s first commercial-scale reprocessing plant in Aomori is scheduled to operate from 2022. While it can separate 8 tons per year of plutonium, it is likely that Japan’s plutonium stockpile will continue to grow without further substantial work.

The final big challenge is how public trust in nuclear power can be restored going forward. It has been eroded by a lack of transparency in the government policymaking process and a poor information disclosure record on the part of nuclear industry. ‘Trustworthy’ information on nuclear risk is hard to come by as most comes from advocacy groups on either side. The lack of an independent oversight agency to openly evaluate policy alternatives complicates matters.

Three key measures are needed to recover public trust. First is to establish an independent policy assessment organisation to provide oversight on the government’s nuclear energy planning. Japan’s new Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) oversees nuclear safety and security, but policy assessment is not their responsibility. One possibility may be to establish an independent committee at the Diet that has legal oversight over the executive. The second is to acknowledge public opposition and facilitate public participation in the decision-making process. And third is to ensure the complete and swift disclosure of information pertaining to nuclear activity.

Tokyo must work to improve transparency and accountability in its nuclear decision-making processes. That is the most important lesson of the Fukushima disaster.

Unless Japan can address its unresolved nuclear legacies in a rigorous and transparent manner and regain public trust, government plans for nuclear energy to play a helping hand in achieving its 2050 decarbonisation goal remain a pipedream.

Tatsujiro Suzuki is Professor and Vice-Director of the Research Centre for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University. He is former vice chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission.