A disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, has greatly affected how Japanese citizens feel about that energy source. Polls suggest that 80 percent of voters now oppose nuclear power in Japan. But walking away from nuclear power is a tricky proposition for a country that has not invested much in renewable alternatives. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.
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It's been three years since a tsunami destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan, and forced the government to shut down the plants that remained. Today, regulators announced they would speed up safety checks on a pair of idle reactors in southwest Japan, a key step in the prime minister's push to restart them and others.
NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at the debate raging in the country about that idea.
In Japan, a meticulous and massive cleanup is under way near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
They are scraping off two inches of soil contaminated with cesium and other radionuclides expelled from the plant after a series of explosions triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The contaminated soil is bagged, placed on a watertight pad, and then covered with a tarp. It will be stored like this until a permanent site can be found.
The radioactive cesium will remain in the soil for 300 years. At Yutaka and Keiko Hakozaki home in Naraha, the cleanup apparently worked. We took some Geiger counter readings in their yard. Cesium levels were 0.204 microsieverts per hour, just under the government limit of 0.23.
Still, the Hakozakis are unsure about returning to their home, but their feelings about nuclear power are now etched in stone.
"We experienced this accident firsthand, which is all the more reason we think that nuclear power plants are not suitable for this country," he said.
Right now in Japan, not a single nuclear power plant is online generating electricity, 48 nuclear reactors, able to generate 30 percent of Japan's electrical demand, idle while this country decides if the Hakozakis are right or if turning the nukes back on is prudent, perhaps even mandatory, to maintain Japan's highly electrified lifestyle.
Japan is making up for the idle nuclear facilities by running their fossil fuel plants at full-tilt, importing $266 billion worth of oil, gas and coal last year. In the country where the Kyoto protocols were drafted, CO2 emissions are up 13 percent.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing an energy policy that would turn the nuclear plants back on as soon as they meet more stringent safety standards adopted after the Fukushima meltdowns. While he has the votes in parliament to make that happen, he doesn't have much support on the street. In fact, polls show as much as 80 percent of voters here now oppose nuclear power.
And large, noisy protests like this outside Abe's office are a regular occurrence.
KAORI ICHIGO, Anti-Nuclear Protester (through interpreter):
We continue this protest until they give up all the nuclear power plants.
But, in Japan, walking away from nuclear power is a tricky proposition. Over the years, the country has not invested much in renewable alternatives. Solar and wind power generation contribute barely 1 percent to the grid.
But the man who was prime minister when the meltdowns happened is trying to change that. Up until March of 2011, Naoto Kan was a proponent of nuclear power.
"I changed my attitude within a week after the accident, when the worst-case scenario became clear," he told me. "I concluded that we have got to quit using these nuclear plants."
Kan's administration increased subsidies to encourage people to install solar panels on their homes. And Japanese corporations are also embracing renewable energy. The Kyocera Corporation has built a giant solar farm in Southern Japan capable of generating 70 megawatts. The company has also developed a smart renewable home concept that allows people to generate and store solar power.
So, 41 degrees Celsius is the temperature of the hot water?
In Tokyo, the giant construction firm Shimizu recently opened a new headquarters building that is wrapped in solar panels and brimming with energy conservation technology.
And Kan himself, now a member of parliament, is practicing what he preaches.
There it is, huh? This is when you were putting them on, yes?
He showed me a satellite image of his home outside Tokyo. The roof is covered with solar panels rated to generate 5.7 kilowatts of electricity.
NAOTO KAN, Former Prime Minister, Japan (through interpreter):
Within 10 to 20 years, all the electricity that was being produced by the nuclear plants will be supplied by renewables.
For that to happen, Japan will need a lot of people to start thinking like dentist Hideki Shinzawa. His home in Kashiwazaki is outfitted with solar panels and a wind turbine.
"If installing solar panels were to become mandatory, I feel that most homes could be self-sufficient," he told me.
Shinzawa lives only five miles from the largest nuclear power plant in the world, TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility on the west coast of Japan. The company says it is ready to begin generating electricity here again after investing $2.6 billion in safety upgrades.
A senior plant manager, Takeshi Ohta, gave me a tour. We began at the new 50-foot high tsunami wall.
TAKESHI OHTA, TEPCO Deputy Superintendent:
We have 891 piles under this basement. So, this wall can withstand the massive power of earthquakes and also following tsunami.
In addition to the giant wall, they have built a five-million gallon reservoir high above the reactors that can supply cooling water for seven days, using only the force of gravity.
And 100 feet above sea level on a hill overlooking the plant, they have staged a series of gas turbine backup generators and a fleet of fire engines.
So, these fire engines are essential for us to keep cooling the reactor.
What happens to this plant may very well be key to Japan's energy future. TEPCO is seeking permission to restart two reactors here in July. If that happens, it will make it easier for other nuclear power plants to come back online.
But the governor of the prefecture that is home to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is fighting TEPCO's proposed plan. Despite a series of investigations and reports on Fukushima over the past three years, Hirohiko Izumida is insisting there are still unanswered questions.
"The cause of the accident at Fukushima is yet to be identified, yet they are declaring that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is safe. I find this exceedingly arrogant," he said.
And while many of his constituents depend on the TEPCO plant for their livelihood, they too are wary of nuclear power.
"If these alternatives are improved enough through some sort of scientific advances, that would be best," says Yoshinori Takahashi, a bus driver at the plant. "Then the use of nuclear power will naturally taper off. I wish for it to be eliminated that way."
That is the goal at here on the Pacific coast, 50 miles east of Tokyo. These wind turbines are the first phase of a project to build 50 more offshore.
Mamoru Komatsuzaki is president of the wind power company. He says Japan is 10 years behind nations that have embraced renewables, leaving the country with few viable alternatives to nuclear power.
"It is impossible to fill the gap right away, because it takes time to build renewable energy sites," he said. "I think we can catch up in about six years."
When the Japanese make a commitment to catch up, they have an extraordinary way of delivering on that promise. But it seems inevitable they will have to rely on nuclear power in the meantime. The reactors may be safer, but will they be safe enough?