December 19, 2014


Toward a Sustainable Japan: Fukushima Accidents Show Japan's Challenges

Keywords: Newsletter Nuclear Power 

JFS Newsletter No.147 (November 2014)

Photo: Greens/EFA MEPs' action to remember the disaster and its victims at the European Parliament
Greens/EFA MEPs' action to remember the disaster and its victims at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on March 11, 2014
Image by greensefa Some Rights Reserved.

Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability delivered a keynote speech on September 10, 2014, at an international symposium "Cope with the Stress of Future Changes - Preparing States, Region, Cities, Organization, Families and People for the Ongoing Transition" organized by the Club of Vienna, an international network of experts in economics, social, natural and environmental sciences. This JFS Newsletter article introduces the excerpts of her speech, Japan's challenges revealed from Fukushima nuclear accidents.


For many years, I have been working in various roles as an interface among sectors in Japan, and as an interface between Japan and the rest of the world. I have been working as a communicator, so to speak. What you will hear today is from the perspective of someone who has been working for some 15 years to make a difference in the field of sustainability.

I have been working on, for example, governmental committees to combat climate change, biodiversity loss, energy, and other problems. I have been writing articles and books, giving talks to many audiences, and running a corporate consultancy.

But what I have found is that many issues in our world are symptoms of something deeper. That root cause we must face and address is the ever-growing appetite for economic growth. Unless we do something about this appetite, it will be difficult for us to solve other issues.

That was my thinking several years ago when I launched the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, and still is today. On this finite planet, it is difficult to have infinite economic growth. Everywhere, not only in Japan but in the rest of the world too, we witness many attempts and initiatives to create alternative paths for happiness and wellbeing. Back in Japan, our institute is engaged in various activities: research, publishing, creating dialogue, and networking with others in the world.

Photo: Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society website

I'd like to talk the challenges we are facing in Japan. They relate to the Fukushima nuclear power plant accidents. We have not yet solved these problems, and they are enormous. Now I will talk about the current situation in Fukushima.

To air:
To date : 20,000 trillion becquerels (Bq) including cesium 134 and 137
Continuously 10 million Bq per hour
To ocean:
To date: immediately after the accident: 7,100 trillion Bq including cesium 134 and 137
Continuously 20 billon Bq per day due to contamination of underground

This is the status of the leakage of radioactive materials, according to a statement by the president of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that owns the nuclear power plant. To date, we have been emitting a huge amount of nuclear material into the air and ocean, and this has not yet stopped. If you have visited Japan you will know that it is blessed with a rich natural environment. Everywhere we find abundant sources of groundwater. The Fukushima site is no exception. And this means that every day, about 400 tons of groundwater are flowing into the reactor site and becoming contaminated.

This is a huge problem for us. Now the government is trying to install a cooling shield underground. Reactors 1 to 4 are close to the seashore, while from the mountains, we have the inflow of 400 tons a day of groundwater getting contaminated. The government's current plan is to install 1,550 pipes 30 meters deep, in the surrounding area. The length of the wall is 1.5 kilometers. The plan is to circulate a coolant at 30 degrees below zero to freeze the groundwater and surrounding soil.

What do you think about that? This is the plan. This is what the government is trying to do. The operation to install this "freezing wall" is set to start in March 2015 and is expected to continue until 2020. The construction costs are huge and will be paid by the government, meaning that taxpayers are paying for this.

To maintain freezing conditions for such a long time, the electricity costs will be huge. Many people are concerned about power failures. What will happen if the electricity stops?

The government has already tried many things to stop the contamination of groundwater, especially to prevent it from flowing into the ocean. An underground water bypass, purification system for contaminated water, and many other initiatives have been tried, but without success. Nobody knows if this cooling shield will succeed.

I had hoped that not only people in Japan but also experts from around the world could help us. But the problem is that the Japanese government and TEPCO are not willing to receive input. Since the Fukushima accident, I have been contacted by many experts from around the world, with offers of help -- expertise and technologies to help us in Japan. I have conveyed their messages to the government, but the government's typical reply is "Thank you, but no. We will take care of these things by ourselves." This attitude is a problem.

In a year since the earthquake and nuclear accident, over 54,000 people moved out from Fukushima, over 70 percent increase compared to the previous year. Many people have left their homes and the region and never came back. As you would expect, many tragedies are happening in Fukushima. Communities are being torn apart, and families are being torn apart. Divorce levels are high, because husbands and wives may have different opinions about where to live. Suicide levels are high. And now Fukushima is facing economic damage because of the prefecture's tarnished image. People in other parts of Japan are not willing to buy products -- especially agricultural products -- from Fukushima. Not surprisingly, they are afraid of radioactive materials potentially being in the products. This is a sad situation, still continuing in this region.

Then there is the problem of debris, not only from the Fukushima accident (highly contaminated, requiring experts to handle), but also from the earthquakes and tsunamis that also left a huge amount of debris. No communities elsewhere in Japan are willing to take this debris from Fukushima Prefecture. This problem has not yet been solved.

Now, because of the shutdown of Fukushima nuclear power plants and others throughout Japan, some people are concerned about energy shortages. And yes, we can expect more price increases.

Before the Fukushima accident, about a third of Japan's electricity came from nuclear power. But today, all nuclear power plants are still shut down, as they we stopped for inspections and maintenance, and none have been restarted yet. So we now rely heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity. This dependency creates a big problem for global warming and climate change, of course.

We heavily rely on imported fossil fuels, and our electricity costs have been increasing. Our national annual electricity bill has increased by 20 to 30 percent since March 11, 2011, the date of the earthquake and nuclear plant accident. People are concerned about energy security, because we are so dependent on outside energy sources.

We have some large hydropower generation plants, but still a small amount of renewables. Since 2012, when Japan introduced a feed-in-tariff system (utilities on the power grid must purchase electricity from small producers, at preset tariff rates), there has been a dramatic increase in electricity production from renewables, especially photovoltaics. But we started from nearly zero, so the portion of renewables among all the energy in Japan is still very limited.

To me, the real challenge includes the fading of public concern and interest. Three years feels like a long time to maintain a high level of public attention on anything. Of course, people living in Fukushima are still interested in doing whatever they can do. But generally speaking, since peaking after the accidents, the levels of concern and interest about these issues are declining among the Japanese people nationwide. Also, check the mass media coverage of Fukushima-related issues, and you will see that it has been decreasing sharply.

Japan's current administration under Prime Minister Abe has put its priority on economic growth in order to the address Fukushima disaster and other issues. So people feel, "Now we don't have the luxury of other options. To deal with Fukushima or energy issues, we should just focus on economic growth." This is now a sentiment shared by many Japanese.

I believe that we should think about these situations from the structural level, but we haven't done so yet. The previous administration tried to change things but failed and was thrown out in the last general election. Now the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the traditional power-holder, is again the ruling administration in Japan.

The Abe administration kicked out the anti-nukes members, including myself, from governmental committees. Before the Abe administration, I was a member of an energy committee, an advisory body for the government charged with providing input on energy policies until 2030 for Japan. We had 25 members, of whom myself and seven others were not in favor of nuclear power. It was a small contingent, but this was still a huge departure from the past because citizens and experts against nuclear power have never been assigned as members of a governmental advisory body.

The new administration, however, restructured the committee, eliminating anyone against nuclear power. Now what we have is a situation where government officials and committees are back to doing their jobs as if the March 2011 disasters had never occurred. They have resumed what they had been doing for 30 or 40 years, focusing on nuclear power.

In Japan we have what some people refer to as a "nuclear village": a group of government officials, industries, and academia notorious for being strongly pro-nuclear. There has been little change in this group, and the regulatory committee to oversee nuclear policies and operations is currently headed by a well-known nuclear proponent. This morning [on September 10, 2014] I received news from Japan that the regulatory committee has approved Japan's first re-start of a nuclear power plant (in Sendai), and it will likely take place this winter, I am afraid.

Another problem is that we have very limited real journalism in Japan's mass media. If you just watch television and read national newspapers, you will get only a partial picture, not the whole picture. At the same time, Japan's alternative media are weak, so it is difficult for anyone to get an alternative message across to the public.

If we hold a meeting like this one, we will attract likeminded people and can have a good discussion. But how can we go beyond that audience? It is a huge challenge.


Above is the first half of the speech. We will introduce the latter half of the speech in the next JFS newsletter, about local economy in Japan, plus values and lifestyles toward a more sustainable world. Stay tuned!

Written by Junko Edahiro