It’s been more than four years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster but the contamination cleanup remains a work in progress. Yesterday’s news that a snake-like transformer robot had stalled while exploring one of the three damaged reactors was just the latest sign of what the Fukushima plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), is up against.
The robot had been sent in last week for a 10-hour mission to give Tepco officials a better idea of the conditions inside the reactor. But within three hours of recording video and collecting radiation and temperature levels, it went dark. What the robot did reveal was that radiation levels inside the reactor are still high enough to kill a person within an hour of exposure.
Japan has already spent more than ¥581bn (€4.6bn) on the cleanup. Yet it’s unclear when Tepco will have the tools to stop the contamination leaks, retrieve the melted nuclear fuel and properly decommission the plant. Meanwhile, Tepco continues to build tanks to contain more than 600,000 tonnes of contaminated water that’s been used to cool Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors. The government has said it could take 40 years but even that’s a wild guess at this point.
A sobering lesson about the risks of nuclear energy – or so you would think. But the debate in Japan isn’t about what to replace nuclear energy with; it’s over how much to rely on the nuclear reactors that are offline for now.
What about a drastic switch to renewable energy? Japan gets just 11 percent of its electricity from wind, solar, geothermal and hydraulic power. The Environment Ministry figures that the country can do a lot better: it recently suggested that as much as 35 per cent of electricity could come from renewable energy sources by 2030. But last week the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (Meti), which wields far more clout, shot down such lofty targets. Too unreliable and too costly for the economy, Meti said, calling for a more incremental increase.
Much of this struggle over what’s possible or not has taken place behind closed doors, without the public having much of a say. Details have emerged in the form of leaks published in Japan’s major dailies; more can be expected as prime minister Shinzo Abe prepares to revise the country’s energy strategy in the coming weeks. No matter what Abe decides it’s likely to polarise the country. For most people, the finer points of energy policy might not be so easy to follow. But the least Abe could do is give the public a chance to see what options are being considered – and time to weigh in – before his administration sets the country on a path that ordinary Japanese will have to live with.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.