17 Jul 2013

Japan’s nuclear energy dilemma

Everything about nuclear power is divisive.

Everything about nuclear power in Japan, even more so, after the series of explosions which not only crippled the giant Fukushima-Daiichi cluster of six coastal reactors – but shut down Japan’s entire nuclear industry.

Fukushima joined Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the global lexicon of nuclear horror – deserved or not.

Her fifty nuclear plants are either idle or offline, and have been so for the two and a half years since the disaster took place.

But even as they continue to pour tonnes of water daily into the reactor fuel rods at Fukushima to stop a full-scale meltdown; even as they struggle to isolate why the place is leaking radioactive water into the Pacific; even as they cannot explain why caesium levels near to Reactor 2 are now higher than at any time since the earthquake struck the plant – even as all this is gong on, the Japanese nuclear industry is rousing itself from idling offline and looking to generate power once again.

Ten nuclear power plants are actively lobbying to restart full operations, and most are sited at or near the coast, as is the Japanese way. Many – like Fukushima – are old plants now and desperate to get back into the game after sitting offline for this long period of national Japanese soul-searching.

Yet a recent demonstration against the nuclear industry brought more than 30,000 onto the streets of Tokyo. That is a big number in Japan.

Workers for Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the firm that runs Fukushima) have endured all manner of threats and insults in the months since the plant fell to the force of the quake and then the tsunami.

Even as they struggle to contain what is going on in the plant (and nobody really knows the full extent of that) debate rages across Japan and beyond.

The pro-nuclear lobby points out that nobody has died as a result of the nuclear accident and explosions at the plant. The antis counter that this is because Japan swiftly evacuated 160,000 people – people who remain evacuated to this day with little sign of returning to anywhere near the plant for at least two years. Many cannot think of going back for at least five years, authorities now say.

They also point out that the nature of nuclear poisoning is that it is cumulative. It is, they argue, too early to start reaching any judgments about Fukushima.

Yet the government has pressing concerns.

Japan has had to power itself from somewhere, somehow. And it has gone carbon of course – importing fossil fuels at an unsustainable level to bridge the Fukushima gap. It cannot, they argue, go on.

That debate will grow with urgency as a third post-earthquake winter approaches.

For now though, they are still crisis-managing at the stricken plant itself. Indeed whether they really are managing it at all is another level altogether of raging debate.

Meanwhile, there are permanent-looking radiation monitors which have spring up for miles around the plant itself, displaying to the public the background radiation levels twenty-four seven.

Nobody much notices them nowadays. But I cannot help seeing they are powered by solar panels.

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