Photo/IllutrationVisitors observe the No. 2 reactor building, left, and the No. 3 reactor building on the grounds of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in February. (Pool)

  • Photo/Illustraion

When I visited the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in early February, I found that 96 percent of the plant grounds are now designated as “green zones.”

You can enter a green zone in normal work clothes without wearing special gear for protection against radiation.

In these areas, radiation levels have declined significantly due to measures including removing debris, cutting down plants and covering the soil with mortar.

Areas between the No. 2 and No. 3 reactor buildings are also green zones, and I could enter the areas in everyday clothes, wearing just an ordinary disposable mask. It was a dramatic change from several years ago, when I was restricted to seeing the facilities from the inside of a vehicle even though I was wearing a full-body radiation suit.

There are, however, still many gloomy vestiges of the nuclear devastation that occurred at this plant in March 2011.

The concrete walls of the No. 3 reactor building were blown off by hydrogen explosions and numerous iron reinforcing rods, violently bent and sticking out of the remnants of the walls, are visible. The outer walls of buildings remain colored a vivid green because of residues of an anti-scattering agent sprayed around immediately after the accident began to unfold to prevent radioactive materials from spreading.

Massive amounts of melted nuclear fuel debris remain in the No. 1 to No. 3 reactors.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, recently succeeded in using a remotely controlled probe to make the first physical contact with debris inside the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor. But it is still unclear whether all the debris will be eventually removed.

The plant is generating a rapidly increasing amount of radiation-contaminated water as the reactors are being flooded to cool the cores and underground water keeps pouring in. Even after being treated with a filtering system, the polluted water still contains tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, and has to be stored in on-site tanks.

The number of the storage tanks filled with contaminated water and placed within the premises has kept growing and is now approaching 1,000.

Obviously, a long, rocky road lies ahead for the work to decommission the reactors.

REACTOR RESTARTS CONTINUE

Serious nuclear accidents cause enormous damage and necessitate lengthy, costly and formidable cleanup work.

Japan, a nation that has learned these facts the hard way, should seek to build a society that is not dependent on nuclear power generation.

In an editorial in July 2011, The Asahi Shimbun argued that Japan should pursue the goal of transforming itself into a “zero nuclear power generation society.”

The process of achieving the goal would involve decommissioning reactors gradually, starting with high-risk and aging units, while keeping the operation of only the ones that are necessary to meet demand for the time being. Through this process, Japan should eventually eliminate nuclear power generation in the not-so-distant future.

Following the Fukushima disaster, it has been decided that a total of 21 reactors, mostly units that have been in service for decades, will be decommissioned. But this does not mean that Japan is moving toward a nuclear-free future.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has continued to maintain that nuclear power is an “important core power source” even though it has pledged to lower Japan’s dependence on atomic power “as much as possible.”

Under the administration’s energy supply target, nuclear power generation should account for 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s total power output in 2030. During the current Diet session, Abe has contended that seeking to end nuclear power generation is “not a responsible energy policy.”

He has reiterated his administration’s policy of allowing the restarts of reactors that have been confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority to meet the new, stricter nuclear safety standards that were introduced after the Fukushima accident.

The Abe administration also refuses to abandon the government’s policy of establishing a nuclear fuel recycling program, which has clearly become untenable.

Most Western industrialized nations have given up on their nuclear fuel recycling programs as they have proven economically unviable. But the Abe administration has not ditched the plan to start operating the plant to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for recycling that is being constructed in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, at an estimated cost of 2.9 trillion yen ($26.02 billion).

Shinichiro Tanaka, a specially appointed visiting associate professor at the Chiba University of Commerce, has scrutinized the government’s draft budget for the new fiscal year and found that nuclear power-related expenditures account for 40 percent of the planned total energy policy spending by all ministries and agencies.

This clearly indicates what a large portion of government fiscal resources is being poured into nuclear power.

GLOBAL ENERGY SHIFT

In January, the Renewable Energy Institute released a report saying nuclear power generation is losing its competitiveness globally.

While the costs of nuclear energy have risen due to enhanced safety requirements following the Fukushima accident, the report says, those of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power have fallen, thanks to technological innovations.

Some countries, including Germany and South Korea, have decided to phase out nuclear power generation. In other major countries, including the United States and Britain, the share of nuclear power in the overall power supply has dropped because of the rise of renewable energy.

Even France, a leading nuclear power producer, plans to significantly lower its dependence on atomic energy. In China and India, where the government has been eager to promote nuclear power, renewable energy production is growing faster than nuclear power generation.

Nuclear power once accounted for 17 percent of the world’s total electricity production, but it is now responsible for only around 10 percent of the global power output. In sharp contrast, the share of renewable energy has risen to nearly a quarter of the total. The International Energy Agency predicts that renewable energy will contribute 40 percent of the world’s energy supply in 2040.

A big global energy shift from nuclear power to renewable energy is taking place.

RESPONSIBLE DECISIONS NEEDED

The Abe administration’s efforts to promote exports of nuclear power technology, a key component of its growth strategy, have run into the sands in Britain and Turkey.

It is a big irony that a nation that has suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident is making frustrating efforts to sell its nuclear technology to other countries while repercussions from the accident are driving the world toward a new energy future.

This nation’s government still continues devoting huge amounts of resources to maintaining nuclear power generation, which is clearly in decline worldwide, while putting renewable energy, which will assume growing importance in the coming years, on the back burner. Sticking to this policy would cause Japan to be left out of the emerging mega-energy trend.

It is by no means easy to pull the plug on all nuclear plants in Japan. That makes it all the more important for the government to adopt this policy goal and start taking steps to decommission reactors as soon as possible while making greater efforts to expand the use of renewable power.

This is also vital for Japan’s efforts to help stem global warming.

The sooner the policy shift is made the better. Ending nuclear power generation would also stop the growth in the amount of spent nuclear fuel.

Scrapping the nuclear fuel recycling program would save the government the enormous amount of additional funds needed to operate and upgrade the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.

Pursuing a goal of zero nuclear power is not an irresponsible policy. The Abe administration has taken an irresponsible stance toward the issue by allowing the opposition-drafted bill to phase out nuclear power generation to gather dust on the Diet shelf for as long as one year and permitting off-line reactors to be restarted one by one without serious debate on the steps.

It is the responsibility of political leaders to make the decision to phase out nuclear power generation and lay out a clear vision for the nuclear-free energy future of this nation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 12