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5 years after Fukushima, is Japan risking another climate disaster with coal?

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Tokyo, aerial view from the Mori Tower, showing dense population and pollution, Japan.

By Naoyuki Yamagishi

Five years ago, I was on the way back to Japan from a meeting in Europe. Just before leaving the hotel, a colleague mentioned at breakfast that CNN is broadcasting footage of some kind of earthquake in Japan. I did not pay much attention to that news then. Earthquakes are scary, but just having one or two mild ones is not big news in Japan, unless it is an unexceptionally huge one that causes lots of casualties.

This turned out to be the case.

I just couldn’t believe the TV footage that I saw at the airport while waiting for the delayed flight. Cars were washed up on the shore like toys, and the Tsunami was literally eating up the earth beyond what I would usually describe as coastal land. And then the Fukushima tragedy happened.

Today marks five years since the East Japan Great Earthquake and TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Accident. My prayers are with the victims and their loved ones and I send my utmost respect and prayers for the people still struggling on the ground to recover from the tragedy.

On this important day, I’d like to draw two lessons that Japan should have learned from the tragedy, on the climate and energy front.

The first lesson is simple: nuclear is not a viable solution.

Why nuclear doesn’t work

Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear was not only treated as a key source of energy, but was also seen as a main instrument for climate policy in Japan. In the government’s plan, it was expected that the share of nuclear in electricity generation should increase up to 50% by 2030. Clearly, this failed.

It failed not only because the plan to increase the share became unfeasible, but it also exposed the risk of relying on nuclear as a climate solution. After 2011, Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions grew. In 2013, we saw the second highest emissions level since 1990. This is partially because Japan needed to make up about 30% of electricity generation, which was produced by nuclear, with gas. It not only damaged the emission profile, but also the economy with the costs.

This was not the first time that the plan to increase nuclear failed and climate policy experienced drawbacks. In the past, the government’s plan to increase nuclear always failed and staggered. The promised emission reduction from nuclear was not achieved. Nuclear has repeatedly been proven extremely unreliable as a climate solution, let alone its sustainability and safety issues.

The second lesson is that energy and climate decisions based on narrow-minded, short-term “costs” will fail.

One of the biggest reasons why nuclear was (and is still) favored by Japanese industries and the government is its supposed cheapness as electricity source. In the government’s cost estimate, nuclear always appears as the cheapest option, even taking into account the back-end costs. And yet, somehow, proponents of nuclear power want the government to take up a certain level of responsibility and provide financial support for the promotion of nuclear.

Look at the “costs” that were amassed by the accident. We are not even close to recovering from the accident, after five years in the third largest economy in the world. Some land may not be usable for the foreseeable future. Nobody can deny the tremendous “cost”, whether it is expressed in monetary value or not, for the people and the environment in Japan, especially Fukushima.

Japan is about to repeat the same mistake, this time by increasing the reliance on coal.

Filling the gap with coal?

The Fukushima accident changed the status of nuclear in Japan’s climate and energy space, at least, to some extent. After the accident, the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration initiated a long, controversial discussion to revise the existing energy strategy. After more than a year of debate, the government finally reached the conclusion to gradually phase out nuclear while increasing the share of renewable energy. However, the decision was overturned in December 2012, when the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took over after the election in December 2012.

The new government adopted something called the “energy mix” for 2030 in 2015, in which it says it intends to keep the share of nuclear at 20-22 per cent of electricity in 2030, while mildly increasing the share of renewables from the current 12-13 per cent to 22-24 per cent.

Compared to the previous strategy of increasing nuclear to 50 per cent, the “20-22 percent” figure looks “less dependent.” The trick here is that the number cannot be achieved unless existing nuclear power plants are used beyond their 40-year lifetime or new ones are built. Again, this is not likely to be achieved.

It is no secret that, if the nuclear plan is not achieved, the government will use coal to make up the difference. In the energy mix, coal is already assumed hold a 26 per cent share in 2030, almost the same level as it was before 2011.

The biggest reason why coal is favored is that it is cheap, at least on the surface, without a strong carbon price. In fact, we have 47 new coal-fired power plants in the pipeline, which amounts to about 23GW in total. If all of them come online, it will overshoot the 26 per cent share and the emission reduction target of Japan for 2030, which is already assessed as insufficient for achieving 2 degrees.

We are choosing “cheap” coal over the long-term benefit of a safe climate.

The only viable solution is renewables. This is not to say there will not be challenges. We are already facing various issues related to the promotion of renewables. Nonetheless, in the past five years, the renewable market grew dramatically thanks to the feed-in tariff introduced in 2012. New business emerged. The change is certainly happening in Japan, but it’s not strong enough, yet.

We as WWF call for 100 per cent renewable energy, both globally and nationally in Japan. The vision is often described as “unrealistic” and, in some cases, even “irresponsible.” They call us “unrealistic” when they can’t even answer simple questions like “Where do we put nuclear waste?” They call us “irresponsible” when they still stress the affordability of electricity, after having seen the consequences of putting too much emphasis on the so-called “cheap” energy.

We will not shy away from calling for a future powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, because that’s what the world is moving towards. Because that’s the most reliable solution to both the energy and climate challenges.

Naoyuki Yamagishi is the leader of climate and energy policy for WWF Japan. He is based in Tokyo.

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WWF-Japan: Nuclear is not a viable solution for our country @rdolivaw via @climatewwf

Japan in danger of choosing “cheap” coal over the long-term benefit of a safe climate @rdolivaw

5 years after Fukushima, is Japan risking another climate disaster with coal? via @climatewwf

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