Ryota Takakura was working at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011, packing low-level radioactive waste in drums when the ground started to shake and then recoiled like a ship in a storm.
The lights went out, leaving Takakura and his colleagues in pitch black when the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history turned the factory and the waste disposal facility upside down. But the worst was 40 minutes later when a tsunami hit the coast at the height of a four-story building.
The wave killed more than 15,000 people in northeastern Japan. It also shut down the auxiliary diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi, leading to the collapse of three reactors at the plant, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
Takakura worked on the cleanup, but still feels betrayed 10 years later by operator Tokyo Electric’s safety promises. “Looking at the news now, I still don’t trust what Tepco has to say,” he said.
His distrust sums up the Japanese debate on nuclear energy. The government and power industry are still pushing for reactors to be restarted, but strong opposition from the public and the courts has left most of them offline.
As Japan takes on the new challenge of reducing net CO2 emissions to zero by 2050, after nearing power outages this winter, the country is discovering that it cannot live with nuclear energy and cannot do without it.
“The prime minister has set a goal of having carbon neutrality by 2050, but not everyone understands what that means,” said Masakazu Toyoda, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo and a member of the government’s energy policy advisory committee.
“It’s not easy even with nuclear power,” he said. “In my opinion it is almost impossible without nuclear energy.”
Over the past 10 years, every government revision of energy policy has come to the same conclusion: even with a massive increase in renewables, there will still be a gap of about 40 percent of energy demand by 2050, which must be met by either fossil fuels or nuclear.
But no matter how many white papers the bureaucrats produce, they have failed to soften the deep-seated public opposition, who have been unable to soften the terrifying days when the Fukushima reactors were melting.
A recent poll for the national broadcaster NHK found that only 3 percent of the public wants to use more nuclear energy, while 29 percent is willing to leave things as they are. That was just over a decade ago, but about two-thirds of the population wants nuclear power to phase out or phase out immediately.
The Fukushima site itself remains a monument to the disaster. Despite the promise to decommission the plant, experts said Tepco still had no viable plan to process highly radioactive waste from inside the affected reactors. The government has controversial plans to flush tritium-contaminated water from the Pacific site – a constant reminder of the disaster.
“We know it’s not safe, we know it’s expensive, we don’t have any place to throw the waste away. Which smart people still strive for [nuclear power] is something I cannot comprehend, ”Junichiro Koizumi, the Conservative Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, said at a recent event with Democratic Party Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the time of the disaster.
Achieving 100 percent renewable energy is perfectly possible, Kan said, and only vested interests kept nuclear power alive. “The forces that continue to promote nuclear energy are the ‘nuclear village’, who want to protect their existing privileges,” he added.
Opposition from local mayors and prefecture governors, or from campaigners submitting warrants, means that only nine of Japan’s 60 nuclear reactors have been restarted. Despite all the government’s repeated claims that nuclear power was essential, officials said they had no plans for legislation that would stop these brutal local battles.
The likely outcome, therefore, is that the Japanese nuclear industry is slowly withering away. “That’s the biggest problem,” said Toyoda. “Nuclear engineers are already working in other industries. Running existing reactors alone is not enough to maintain Japan’s nuclear capacity. “
Takakura said he was fine with that. “I’m against nuclear. I think it’s dangerous,” he said.
The disaster forced its local community to evacuate near the factory, and 10 years later it has not recovered. “Very few people have returned,” he said. “Everything is gone.”