Sustainable energy for the people: Lessons from Fukushima

The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, caused by the earthquake off the cost of Japan in March last year, reminded people of the dangers of nuclear energy, and the structural problems of the industry says Akira Kawasaki of Peace Boat

 The Energy section of the Outcome Document currently under negotiation states that:

 ‘access to sustainable modern energy services’ is necessary for fulfilling ‘basic human needs’. The UN Secretary General’s call for ‘Sustainable Energy for All’,

focusing on access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energies, is duly noted. While these points are worth supporting, several concrete issues from the experience of Fukushima must also be considered.

The meltdown of the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11th March 2011, not only reminded people globally of the fundamental dangers of nuclear energy, but also highlighted the structural problems of this particular industry.

First, the system of nuclear power generation has no local community ownership. The Fukushima plant was generating electricity to supply to Tokyo, not for the local people of Fukushima. This system was created by the central government through huge financial handouts. However, it is the people of Fukushima who were most affected by the accident, and continue to suffer serious damage from which it is extremely difficult to recover.

Second, it is now clear just how closed and exclusive the ‘nuclear village’ comprising of government and industry is, and how unaccountable it is to the people. When the Fukushima accident occurred, the Japanese government did not disclose its data predicting radiation diffusion – resulting in unnecessary exposure of citizens to radiation. The post-accident investigation process has revealed that although safety deficiencies of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant were continuously reported internally by staff, no improvement measures were taken. This needs to be understood, not merely as a problem of the specific corporation TEPCO, but as a structural problem common to electricity corporations that are not accountable or open to the local people.

Third, however, is the fact that energy conservation and efficiency is indeed feasible. Following the Fukushima accident, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors have been shut down one by one, and finally Japan reached zero nuclear power operation in May 2012. The Japanese government has overridden massive opposition and decided recently to restart two of these reactors, but even despite this, it is anticipated that Japan will have very few, if any, operating nuclear reactors for the foreseeable future. Some may wonder how Japan, which until the accident had relied on nuclear power for one third of its electricity, can achieve this. While acknowledging with appreciation the international support received following the disaster, the ability to cope with such a reduction in electricity supply was brought about by citizens from all backgrounds coming together and coordinating to conserve and use energy more efficiently. During the summer of 2011, Japanese households and businesses were able to reduce their electricity consumption by 15%.

Fourth, is the high potential of the contribution of renewables to the regional economy. Following the disaster, many Japanese municipalities have expanded activities to break away from the dependence on nuclear energy and introduce more renewable energy projects, which are starting to show great progress. The recent International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report, which shows the huge potential of sustainable energy for job creation, directly coincides with the activities being undertaken throughout Japan.

The lessons learned from Fukushima for the world’s energy future are:

  • The energy system symbolised by nuclear power generation not only has high risks regarding safety, it is also centrally monopolised, and prone to wasteful spending.
  • It is necessary to establish a system with local community participation and ownership, built upon renewable energy sources founded on traditional wisdom. It is these responsible, sustainable policies which will provide security and accessibility for future generations.
  • Excuses of lack of sufficient technology are no longer relevant, and such a crucial policy shift is indeed possible with sufficient political will.

This blog has been cross-posted from Outreach, a multi-stakeholder publication on climate change and sustainable development produced by Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future.


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