The site of the most recent high-profile nuclear disaster is reinventing itself as a renewable energy leader in Japan. Land that became too toxic for people to farm and live on after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station will soon be dotted with windmills and solar panels.
By 2024, 11 solar and 10 wind power plants on abandoned land in Fukushima Prefecture will generate 600 megawatts, which is roughly two-thirds of the energy output of a typical nuclear plant, Nikkei Asian Review and Yale Environment 360 reported. It’s still far less power than the nearly 4,700 megawatts its nuclear reactors were capable of generating before. But a 2017 prefecture survey found that 54 percent of residents wanted renewable energy, compared to 14 percent who didn’t, according to The Japan Times. The shift is beginning to take shape, thanks to $2.75 billion in financing from groups including the Development Bank of Japan (which is government-owned) and Mizuho Bank (privately owned). A new power grid will connect to the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s transmission lines, which will transfer energy to Japan’s capital city, a three- to four-hour drive away.
Fukushima’s transition from nuclear energy to solar and wind comes as policymakers and scientists around the world debate the role of nuclear energy in efforts to stop the climate crisis. Some look to nuclear energy as an important way to generate energy without burning planet-heating fossil fuels. Yet, despite advances in nuclear technology since notorious meltdowns of the past, others are still concerned about the risks associated with nuclear power.
Fukushima Prefecture, an area encompassing 59 municipalities and a population of over 1.8 million people, is still recovering from rounds of disasters. Eight years ago, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami, which led to three reactor core meltdowns at the nuclear power station. In October 2019, Typhoon Hagibis took another swipe at the prefecture, wiping out homes and businesses that had been rebuilt since 2011. Its floodwaters also washed away an unknown number of industrial-strength plastic bags filled with soil contaminated since the nuclear accident, according to The New York Times.
As it rebuilds, Fukushima has set its sights on leading the way forward in renewable energy. In 2014, it set a goal of meeting all of its energy needs with 100 percent renewables by 2040. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology also opened a research and development center for renewable energy in Fukushima Prefecture in 2014. (What gets labeled as “renewable energy” differs from place to place, but nuclear doesn’t fall into that category, according to Japan’s Act on Special Measures Concerning Procurement of Electricity from Renewable Energy Sources by Electricity Utilities).
Elsewhere, the idea of safer, cleaner, next-generation nuclear technology is rising in popularity, even though many of those systems are still in development. When the United Nations’ panel of scientists released its landmark report on how to keep the world from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius (the benchmark that they say the planet will need to stay below in order to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change), it included nuclear energy as part of the solutions it outlined.
In the United States, even people who agree on the urgency of taking action on climate change are divided on the issue of nuclear power. The debate is playing out in environmental advocacy organizations and even among presidential hopefuls. At a presidential forum on environmental justice at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on November 8th, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) defended his support of building new nuclear infrastructure. New Jersey gets more than 40 percent of its power from nuclear energy, and Booker is the most enthusiastic among Democratic candidates about nuclear-powered energy alternatives. On the other side of the debate is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who calls reliance on nuclear energy “a false solution.”
Speaking with Booker at the forum, moderator Amy Goodman pointed to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that are located near nuclear waste reserves — from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository— and asked, “What is your answer to the fact that there is no solution to dealing with nuclear waste?”
“I’m a realist that tells you right now the biggest existential threat to humanity is climate change,” Booker responded. “The frontiers of nuclear science is not something we should just shut down. We should continue to investigate, is there going to be, eventually, a safe way to do this?”
Those are questions Fukushima is grappling with, too. About 1,000 tanks at the site of the 2011 disaster hold more than 1 million tons of water contaminated with radioactive material. Officials are still unsure what to do with it, The New York Times reports.
In the meantime, Fukushima continues to lead the country with its push toward a renewable future. By 2017, the region was powering 60 percent of its electricity and 28 percent of its overall energy use with renewables, The Japan Times reported. Japan, as a whole, generated about 17 percent of its energy from renewables in 2018, according to the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies based in Tokyo. The country has set a carbon-cutting goal of sourcing around 22 percent of its energy from renewables, along with a nearly equal amount from nuclear energy, by 2030.