The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that killed 19,000 people in Japan in March 2011 also inflicted massive damage on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Power outages caused by the tsunami stopped the flow of critical cooling water, which led to meltdowns in three of the plant’s reactors. The resulting radiation leaks rank the Fukushima incident as the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, superseded only by Chernobyl. And the damage continues: in August of this year, it was announced that barriers intended to contain radioactive water had failed, allowing tons of contaminated water to pour into the Pacific every day. The cleanup is expected to take 40 years and cost $11 billion.
Not surprisingly, this tragedy has prompted the Japanese people to think about alternative sources of energy. Prior to the disaster, Japan generated 30% of its electricity with nuclear power, and was planning to add more. Now, nearly all of the country’s 50 reactors are shut down. This has led to a worrisome spike in carbon emissions, as coal and natural gas take up the slack, but polls show that 70% of Japanese people favor a complete nuclear phase-out.
Whether or not it is completely eliminated, nuclear power appears destined for a diminished role in Japan. The challenge is to find carbon-free alternatives that can take its place. It was with this in mind that in July of 2012, the Japanese government instituted a generous incentive program for renewable energy. Modeled on the feed-in tariffs popularized in Europe, the program provides generators of renewable power with a guaranteed market and a healthy profit margin. The results so far have been dramatic. In the past year, Japan has rocketed to the forefront of renewable energy development worldwide.
The new incentives cover many technologies, but the impact so far has been especially profound in the area of solar power. Long a leading developer of cutting-edge solar technologies, Japan has now become one of the world’s largest consumers, as well. The country is on track to be the number two market for solar power in the world in 2013, trailing only China, and doubling its installed capacity in a single year.
Other renewable energy technologies are receiving investor attention as well, including offshore wind, ocean wave power and geothermal. Part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” seismically active Japan sits on top of enormous geothermal resources that have barely been tapped. Some experts believe there is enough accessible geothermal energy in Japan to displace 25 nuclear power plants.
Proponents of nuclear power argue the technology can be made safe, that future Fukushimas can be prevented through better design, and that nuclear is an essential source of carbon-free power in a world threatened by climate change. Yet, however that debate is ultimately resolved, for Japan it may be beside the point. Fukushima left permanent scars, not just on the land, but also on the people. As a result—for now at least—the country is exploring alternative paths to a low-carbon future.
Contributed by Wyatt C. King, Director, Albright Stonebridge Group
Posted: 10/18/2013 12:12:03 PM by
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