In the days after the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the world was unaware of what was happening in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but it was increasingly clear to the Japanese leadership that a catastrophic disaster was brewing. Prime Minister Naoto Kan viewed reports, each of which was more disheartening than the last, with what we can only imagine was a sinking feeling in his stomach. Today, Japan—and the world—is still coming to terms with what happened in Fukushima, and the lessons taken away from this tragic event will help shape the future of nuclear power.
On October 9th, 2013, former Prime Minister Kan, former chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Dr. Gregory Jaczko, and other former figures in the nuclear regulatory field gathered in the Massachusetts State House to discuss what the United States, and Boston in particular, can learn from the disaster. However, it soon became clear that the opinion of both the crowd and the panel had been decided long before the conference commenced. Every speaker was solidly in the anti-nuclear camp and so much as a mention of shutting down nuclear power plants repeatedly drew cheers and applause from the crowd. Tellingly, the event was sponsored by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, a nonprofit that opposes nuclear power generation.
The lesson for Boston from “Fukushima: Ongoing Lessons For Boston” was that the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachussets should be shut down. State Senator Dan Wolf argued that the 40-year old plant should not stay in service for another 20 years (this extension was approved by the NRC in May of 2012) because its outdated machinery posed unacceptable risks (it is located 35 miles from downtown Boston, while Fukushima is almost five times that distance from Tokyo). Dr. Jaczko argued that the disaster at Fukushima should lead Americans to be much more wary of nuclear power. His presence, alongside former Prime Minister Kan, not only provides insight into the obvious anti-nuclear bias of the panel, but was also interesting given that both men resigned within months of each other in 2011 and 2012 as they became wrapped in controversy.
While the question of what to do with the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant is essential for the state of Massachusetts and the City of Boston, there are currently no official discussions about shutting the plant down. Meanwhile, the future of nuclear power in Japan is much more uncertain. Whatever the Japanese people and government eventually decide will doubtlessly ripple across the world’s nuclear power industry.
During his speech, Prime Minister Kan described what could have happened in a worst-case scenario at Fukushima. He stated that if the disaster had not been contained due to the efforts of a few heroic workers, the evacuation zone could have been as large as a 250 kilometer radius around the crippled power station. This would have affected nearly 50 million people in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The catastrophic effects of abandoning the capital of the world’s third largest economy and the world’s largest city are almost unimaginable. For this reason, the former Prime Minister says that he has changed his position on nuclear power. Even if the possibility of such a catastrophe, or of another nuclear power accident in Japan, were small, Kan holds that such risks are unacceptable. Citing the nation’s small area and level of seismic activity, he told the audience that nuclear accidents could not be absorbed by Japan the way they were by the Soviet Union or hypothetically could be by the United States. The only way to eliminate such risks, he holds, is to permanently shut down every nuclear power plant in Japan.
However, some economists argue that such a plan is economically unfeasible. Nuclear power is a key component of energy generation for many countries, accounting for 20 percent of U.S. power generation, 30 percent of Japanese power before the disaster, and almost 75 percent for the French. In a subsequent interview about the state of nuclear power in Japan, Hideaki Hirata, an economics professor at Hosei University in Tokyo and a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Reichauer Institute, argued that abandoning nuclear power would undo any economic gains Japan has made in recent years and drive up the nation’s already substantial debt. He says “it’s easy to say, ‘let’s stop nuclear power,’ but that would be a huge, negative shock to the Japanese economy. If we are OK with that, then our living standard might go down by up to 30 percent. We would need to reduce consumption, educational spending — it would be bad. If the Japanese people agree with that, then that’s fine. But I’m sure the vast majority of people would not want to go down that path.” Japan ran a trade deficit for only the third time in 30 years in 2012, and has since failed to reverse the trade gap. This new and worrisome development for the traditionally export-driven economy can be directly attributed to the reliance on foreign oil and liquefied natural gas to cover the gap left by the shutdown of nuclear power reactors.
Naoto Kan and the other members of the conference’s panel countered this line of economic reasoning with an appeal for more renewable energy. Kan described how new legislation promoting solar power has led to an increase in solar power generation equivalent to the output of three nuclear power plants. Appealing to the success of the German model for renewable energy production, Kan called for the displacement of Japan’s nuclear power generation capacity with renewable energy by the year 2020, and total elimination of fossil-fuel burning plants by 2050. An ambitious goal, to be sure; however, Professor Hirata countered that, “in the short term, we don’t have a satisfactory alternative for oil or natural gas. In the long run, development of new technology may make renewable energy feasible, but for the next 5 or 10 years, we will need to import more oil.”
Rie Yamada, a staff writer for the Asahi Shimbun, which is Japan’s—and the world’s—second largest newspaper by circulation, contends that in any discussion of nuclear power, ultimately, we can never forget the suffering nuclear disasters can bring. “I would like everyone in the US to have the opportunity to meet those affected by the Fukushima disaster,” she says. “I have met a lot of people who escaped from Fukushima and whenever I hear their story, I again realize that we can never forget what happened there.”
Debates will continue to rage about the cost effectiveness of nuclear power, of coal, and of renewable energy, but some argue that framing this disaster only in economic terms misses the tragedy that has unfolded before our very eyes. If you really remember what happened to people in Fukushima, or Chernobyl, if you contemplate the prospect of evacuating 50 million people from one of the world’s greatest cities, how can you support the continued use of nuclear power with no end in sight?
And yet, abandoning nuclear power in Japan would bring its own risks and painful transitions, such as more strain on a fragile economy and a decrease in the standard of living. Ultimately, despite the most thorough research and risk-reward analysis, any decision that policy-makers reach will be fraught with uncertainty. This uncertainty is inevitable, but politicians and the public must carefully consider both sides of the debate to determine which variables in the calculus of nuclear power policy they deem most important. To that end, I hope that the next conference on nuclear power will give us not only one, but two compelling arguments, with an audience featuring a healthy dose of the anti-nuclear canvassers, the pro-nuclear stalwarts, and everyone in between.