Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

Lessons from Fukushima for EU energy policy

  • UK's construction of the two nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point is an unwelcome, costly and high-risk expense (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

On 11 March 2011, one of the biggest earthquakes in history shook Japan’s northeast. The Tohoku earthquake triggered a 10-metre (33ft) tsunami, which smashed into the power plant on the Fukushima coastline precipitating three nuclear meltdowns and forcing nearby towns to evacuate.

The disaster killed over 19,000 people across Japan and caused an estimated 16.9 trillion yen (€136 billion) in damages.

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  • Fukushima plant in Japan - destroyed five years ago (Photo: DigitalGlobe)

Five years on from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster - which remains the world’s second worst disaster after Chernobyl in 1986 - some 10,000 children whose families fled Fukushima Prefecture have yet to return.

Despite Tokyo’s pledge of 26.3 trillion yen (€211 billion) over five years and a further 6 trillion between now and 2020 to rebuild the disaster area, the Japanese population are reported to be picking up the bill.

The Financial Times recently found that the nuclear disaster has cost Japanese taxpayers almost €90.8 billion, as the underlying cost of the disaster is mainly “being pay by the public, either through electricity bills or as tax”, according to Ritsumeikan University professor Kenichi Oshima.

The wider consequences stemming from the Fukushima disaster are far-ranging. Radioactivity from the nuclear disaster can still be found in some freshwater fish and ocean bottom dwellers near Fukushima have a higher risk of contamination with the radioactive chemical cesium.

Public awareness

In a recent investigation, Greenpeace found that over 9 million cubic metres of nuclear waste are scattered over at least 113,000 locations across Fukushima prefecture.

The NGO’s underwater investigation is set to release findings on the extent to which the Pacific Ocean and local rivers have been contaminated by radioactive material later this month.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a cautious, sceptical attitude over Japan’s nuclear future is prevailing. The disaster changed the national debate over energy policy overnight. As some analysts suggest, the crisis “dramatically raised public awareness about energy use and sparked strong anti-nuclear sentiment”.

But the New York Times recently commented despite the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the accidents at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plants, Japan never faced the levels of popular opposition to nuclear power seen in the US and Europe, before the disaster at Fukushima.

I welcome the measures taken by Japan to address the disaster - including the recent indictment of three former Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives on charges of criminal negligence - but there remains a lot to be done.

Following the Fukushima disaster, one by one the country's nuclear plants were shut-down for maintenance checks and prevented from restarting as a result of widespread public concern.

Anti-nuclear sentiment

Earlier this week, the Otsu District Court ordered Kansai Electric Power to shut down two of its nuclear reactors in Takahama, western Japan following complaints by local residents over the safety of the plant.

It seems that even despite the Nuclear Regulation Authority being established in 2012, the Japanese population are wary of any nuclear plant restarting. Yet so far four out of the 43 operable reactors in Japan have restarted under the new, post-Fukushima safety rules.

Japan still relies heavily on nuclear power for domestic energy purposes, which constituted almost 30 percent of Japan’s energy mix prior to 2011.

The country’s industry ministry is aiming to make nuclear energy account for 20-22 percent of the country’s electricity mix by 2030 with renewable energy sources to make up for 22-24 percent, liquefied natural gas set at 27 percent and coal at 26 percent of electricity generation between now and 2030.

Earlier this week Japan’s former prime minister, Naoto Kan, who held office at the time of March 2011 stated that over the past five years, Japan spent two years without a single nuclear plant on line.

He said that “we can secure enough power without nuclear plants and I believe we should stay away from the large risk posed by nuclear plants and focus instead on renewable energy by changing our sources of power”.

Opinion polls across Japan reveal a growing anti-nuclear sentiment. In a nationwide survey sent to all of Japan’s local authorities - of which 99.6 percent responded - 44.6 percent sought cuts in Japan’s dependence on nuclear power and 21 percent requested the eventual abolishment of nuclear power generation.

Renewable energy

Given the public mood, I am hopeful that Japan continues to diversify its energy mix, and decrease its over-reliance on nuclear energy altogether.

For a country such as the UK, who is undoubtedly able to rely on a diverse range of energy options, the nuclear way is quite clearly not the way forward.

As I said back in 2011, Fukushima offers us a clear-cut example of why we must retain our opposition to the development of nuclear power stations in Scotland and across the UK. The construction of the two nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, England is therefore an unwelcomed, costly and high-risk expense for the taxpayer.

The Guardian reports that the UK government agreed to pay £92.50 (€119.40) for each unit of electricity: more than double the market price now.

With an abundance of natural resources and opportunities for renewable energy sources, not at least offshore wind and tidal power along with wave energy, there is simply no justification for the UK Government to opt out of a cleaner, safer, more cost effective solution to the UK’s energy needs.

Five years on from the Fukushima disaster, I hope that Japan finds alternative, renewable efficient and most importantly safe means to provide energy and that the UK, along with other EU states, commemorate the victims of Fukushima with the view to opt for renewable sources of energy over a high-risk and unnecessarily expensive nuclear energy future.

Ian Hudghton is the president of the Scottish National Party and a member of the European Parliament’s delegation to Japan

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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