Only two out of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are currently operating, a legacy of the systems failures, nuclear meltdowns and radioactive releases that occurred a year ago, when a tsunami struck the Fukushima complex.
“Not surprisingly, there is a widespread ‘nuclear-phobia’ at this point in time,” said Jun Arima, director-general of JETRO, the Japanese trade mission which is based in London. “In the most recent opinion poll, the people approving and opposing the reopening of nuclear plants were almost half and half.”
But “there are different amounts according to gender,” he noted. “Males tend to support the reopening and females tend to oppose it.”
Asked by EurActiv whether opposition to plant closures was based on scientific considerations, Arima replied that the science involved was contested by both sides.
“I personally consider that the opposition is very much mobilised by emotion,” he added. “But if I said that in public in Japan, I would be heavily criticised.
His words indeed provoked an angry response from environmentalists in Europe and Japan.
Claude Turmes, a Green MEP and substitute European Parliament delegate for EU-Japan relations, described Arima’s comments as “an offence to Japanese citizens, especially women.”
“The Fukushima disaster has shown that nuclear energy is a real risk and it is a pity that Japanese officials are not learning the lessons from it,” he said.
According to Japan’s 2010 Energy Plan, the supply of electricity from nuclear energy was slated to double from 26% in 2007 to 53% in 2030, with the share of renewable energy rising from 9% to 21% in the same timeframe.
But Tokyo’s ability to replace nuclear with renewable energy sources was limited, Arima said, as spatial and economic constraints prevented a widespread roll out of wind and solar power.
Environmentalists contest this, and the energy battleground in Japan has turned to the reopening of nuclear reactors shut a year ago, with implications for the future of nuclear power in the rest of the world.
On the frontline, Fukui prefecture contains 14 nuclear reactors – Japan’s most dense concentration of atomic plants – and yesterday (14 March), the prefecture’s local assembly debated reopening plants. They could not reach an agreement.
Speaking on a phone line from the assembly, Wakao Hanaoka, Greenpeace Japan’s campaigns director, told EurActiv that “people here have been forced to choose between the safety of their jobs and the safety of their lives”.
“Most people oppose the plants reopening even though many of them were hired by the nuclear industry,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if they are men or women, young or old, they are simply scared of the plants because they are life-threatening.”
The Japanese government’s process for reopening shut nuclear reactors requires that plants first pass a ‘stress test’, after which the prime minister, two cabinet ministers and the chief secretary of the cabinet office must give their approval.
Following that, consent is needed from local communities and this is where the battle for public opinion is crucial.
Japan’s last two operating reactors are due to go offline for maintenance in late April and environmentalists claim that nuclear enthusiasts are pushing hard to get some currently mothballed reactors back online by that point.
“If all the nuclear plants go offline, we will experience a nuclear-free Japan and the electricity industries don’t want citizens to realise that it is possible. This is the battle point and Fukui prefecture is its strongest line,” Hanaoka said.
Despite the virtual shutdown of the country’s nuclear industry, Japan has experienced few electricity supply problems since the Fukushima disaster. But it has also largely replaced nuclear power with energy from fossil fuels.
Arima said that if this change was made permanent, carbon dioxide emissions would be 18% higher in 2020 than they were in 1990, and fuel costs would rise by 10% for households and 17% for industry.