Honolulu Civil Beat reporter journeys to Japan for a look at the country's move to renewable energy.
Reading time: 6 minutes.
Editor’s Note:Japan is struggling to define its future energy policy. The island nation is at a crossroads. Political sentiment following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami is moving it away from its once heralded nuclear power program. Like Hawaii, efforts to boost renewable energy are in high gear. Hawaii stands to benefit from Japan’s intensive program to harness renewable energy. Already smart-grid technology is being imported to Maui. Innovative wind projects, sea floor turbines and other cutting-edge technology aren’t far behind.
TOKYO — As I sit here in Japan for the first time in my life — on a lovely, bright winter day in Tokyo — I can’t help but reflect on how Fukushima altered the trajectory of my life.
Back in March 2011 when the plant was still spiraling out of control, I covered a state Senate hearing in Sacramento, California on lessons learned from the meltdown. It was supposed to be only a 50-second radio story. But something about Fukushima captivated me.
Yes, it was, and still is, a big disaster. And let’s face it, journalists are attracted to terrible events. But at the risk of sounding dramatic, as our planet warms — threatening our survival and security — the choices we make around energy have epic consequences.
I ended up producing two documentaries about nuclear power in the United States, one for PBS focusing on seismic safety in California (the other place in the world with nuclear plants that is susceptible to huge earthquakes) and another for Al Jazeera International about the overall safety of the 104 reactors in the U.S.
Now, nearly two years after Fukushima, I’m Civil Beat’s foreign correspondent.
I was fortunate to be selected as one of three U.S journalists to look at present-day Japan in the aftermath of Fukushima by the International Center For Journalists. Over the next 10 days I’ll be reporting for Civil Beat and also producing a couple of radio stories for the public radio/BBC program The World. I’ll be particularly focusing on the meteoric growth of renewable energy in Japan.
It’s almost difficult to remember that before Fukushima, Japan was bullish about nuclear power. Back in early 2011, about 25 percent of the nation’s energy came from atomic power. By 2030, the plan was to build enough reactors to provide 50 percent of the nation’s energy needs. Proponents said Japan could become both energy independent and address climate change reduction. You can see the appeal, setting aside the perils from accidents and the nuclear waste issue, nuclear energy is a gee whiz technology that creates abundant energy without pumping carbon into our atmosphere.
That was of course before Fukushima. Today Japanese polls continue to reflect more than 70 percent opposition to nuclear plants. And while only a tiny fraction of energy is produced by renewable energy, as Andrew DeWit, a Rikkyo University political economics professor who studies Japan’s energy sector, told me from his office in Tokyo Tuesday, there is a revolution going on in the renewable energy sector.
DeWit said the world’s most aggressive feed-in-tariff — the additional price that the Japanese government is paying to renewable energy producers — is creating more wind, solar and biomass projects then he can possibly keep track of.
None of that is to say that Japan is definitively putting nuclear power in its rear view mirror. National elections are being held this Sunday. About 1,500 candidates from 12 parties are vying for 480 seats and to lead the government. The two main parties are the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ, and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party or LDP.
The man expected to become Prime Minister is the LDP’s leader, Shinzo Abe. Abe has made careful statements suggesting he will restart plants.
I’m told there a lot of factors that impact the electorate. There is the tension with China over disputed islands, nervousness about North Korea which fired off a long-range missile Tuesday. But mostly as James Carville famously coined, “It’s the economy stupid.”
Losing 25 percent of its power-generating infrastructure has been a shock to Japan. With energy efficiency measures, and importing oil and natural gas, the country hasn’t ground to a halt. But energy costs for companies and homeowners have risen as much as 15 percent. Just a few days ago, the nation officially slipped into recession. The LDP will likely come to power because people here are nervous and looking for a change from the DPJ.
Elections are completely different from in the United States. It’s a kind of lonely affair. It’s against the law for candidates or their proxies to give interviews. What would CNN do if they didn’t have all those paid pundits to turn to?
As I witnessed today when I attended an LDP rally in downtown Tokyo, candidates stand near metro stations on top of a truck and deliver stump speeches. Afterward they humbly bow to a few voters. Projecting humility seems very important.
I talked to a couple of high school students who were taking it all in. And in this era of the distraction of ubiquitous social networks and video games, they were surprisingly serious. Despite being two years from voting age, the duo had gotten the campaign schedule from several of the political parties and were taking in stump speeches across the city.
One of the teenagers, Hayato Ooki, told me he was both deeply concerned about nuclear safety and the nation’s energy situation. His dad works at a major Tokyo hotel that is paying $800,000 more a month in energy costs. “We need some kind of middle ground,” Ooki said.
Later, as dinner with my wonderful translator, Junko Takahashi, showed, I have a lot to learn about Japanese etiquette. We ate at a scrumptious Izakaya (casual restaurant for after work drink and meal) that specializes in seafood from the Hokkaido region of Japan. The Japanese have the bar food thing completely down. As my wife and friends can attest, I’m a notorious lightweight. The incredible flavors from sashimi, steaming concoctions of squid boiling on the table, the smoke from the businessmen at the next table over, combined with jet lag and the single beer I sipped were all intoxicating.
Junko, who was doing all the ordering, at one point woke me from my haze and in a hushed but firm voice said, “Joe, you cannot leave your chopsticks standing in the rice. They remind us of incense at a funeral.” I told her it wouldn’t be the last time I was the inadvertent ugly American, and to keep the lessons coming.
Thursday:With national elections happening this weekend in Japan, I’ll look at what the heated campaign might mean for the future of nuclear power and the development of renewable energy.
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