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How The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Affected The Energy Industry In Japan


The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan changed the country in many ways. Thousands died; many more are still missing. And the resulting nuclear disaster in Fukushima left parts of the country uninhabitable. It also put much of Japan's nuclear power industry on hold and left one of the world's top energy consumers struggling to find a new way forward. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to Fukushima. And today, she examines how the disaster affected energy in Japan.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Kazuo Okawa trudges along a seaside cliff on the edge of Fukushima prefecture in northern Japan. It's early March, and huge waves crash on the rocks below.


LONSDORF: It isn't hard to picture what happened here roughly nine years ago.

KAZUO OKAWA: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "The tsunami covered everything," Okawa says, gesturing around, including the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, owned by Tokyo Power and Electric Company, or TEPCO. He points to it in the distance.

KAZUO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: The giant waves overwhelmed the power plant, and three of the six reactors overheated and exploded. Plumes of radioactive material were carried by the wind for miles. Okawa was a maintenance man at those reactors in 2011. He lived near the plant, and he says he used to fish from this cliff on his days off.


LONSDORF: Now all of this is part of the exclusion zone, too dangerous for the public. Okawa needs a special permit to visit here even for a few hours, and nearby towns remain largely abandoned. Okawa's whole life is different, too. He now lives hundreds of miles away. He's unemployed, and the compensation money from TEPCO and the government has stopped. Looking at the power plant, he's a little miffed that Daiichi is still here and so much else is not.

KAZUO: (Through interpreter) Nine years later, and it's still standing. It's not easy to get rid of nuclear power.

LONSDORF: Okawa is right. Taking apart a nuclear power plant is not easy. Daiichi has been in the decommissioning process essentially since the disaster.


LONSDORF: And that means every day, over 4,000 workers stream into the plant, clocking in...


LONSDORF: ...To tackle a vast array of problems. The radiation levels here are much lower than they were nine years ago. In most areas of the plant, you can walk around without special protective gear. Down by the reactors, though - the ones that exploded - levels are still high, and visiting time to them is limited. Kazuo Takahashi, our TEPCO guide, takes us down to see them, bringing into stark reality the challenges that TEPCO has faced here since the disaster.


LONSDORF: Crews of workers are bustling around in full protective suits.

KAZUO TAKAHASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Takahashi points out each reactor, each with its own set of problems, he says. A new robot had to be invented to get to melted fuel in one. Another had to be essentially rebuilt just to take it apart again. And then there's the problem of waste.

KAZUO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Here at Daiichi, huge amounts of water are pumped into the damaged reactors every day to keep them cool. The end result is more than one million tons of that water piled up in storage tanks, contaminated with radioactive tritium. Storage space is running out, and the Japanese government is considering dumping it all into the ocean, much to the dismay of local communities worried about environmental impact. This is all just a taste of what it means to decommission Daiichi, which will take an estimated 40 years and nearly $200 billion, to produce no electricity at all.

The rest of Japan's nuclear power program isn't faring a whole lot better. By 2011, nuclear power produced nearly a third of the nation's energy. But after the disaster, the Japanese government imposed new safety regulations that took every nuclear reactor offline - all 54 of them. And the Japanese public largely wants to keep it that way.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Japanese).

LONSDORF: Anti-nuclear power sentiment spread rapidly after Fukushima.

ALEXANDER BROWN: There was a very great sense of betrayal.

LONSDORF: Alexander Brown is an Australian researcher in Japan. He's studied the anti-nuclear power protests that took off in 2011. He says that betrayal came largely from the fact that Japanese people had been assured that nuclear power was safe, that no accident would ever happen.

BROWN: So it was much more than just about the radioactive fallout or the specifics of the accident itself.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Japanese).

LONSDORF: Huge protests broke out in Tokyo - tens of thousands of people marching through city streets in bright costumes, banging drums and cymbals...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...And, of course, chanting.

BROWN: One of the main slogans was just, (speaking Japanese), we oppose nuclear power.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Japanese).

LONSDORF: These big protests continued for months and spread to other cities. And even now...

BROWN: There are still protests everywhere.

LONSDORF: They're smaller, Brown says, and maybe not quite so eye-catching.

BROWN: But it's persistent. And it's not going away.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Japanese).

LONSDORF: Which has left Japan in a kind of energy conundrum - with all those reactors offline, a lot more coal and natural gas had to be imported. Energy prices have gone up, as have greenhouse gas emissions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party have been pushing hard to restart the nuclear power program, promising safety but needing to bring down costs and tackle climate change.

TATSU SUZUKI: The government under the treaty keeps saying nuclear power is the cheapest power source. People don't trust it anymore.

LONSDORF: Tatsu Suzuki is a former nuclear engineer and now professor at Nagasaki University. He says that the disaster in Fukushima made people completely rethink the cost of nuclear power in broader terms.

TATSU: The social cost of separation from family, losing the land, losing their jobs - how can you measure all of these impacts, estimating the risk of nuclear power?

LONSDORF: But, Suzuki says, the choice is still a difficult one when you factor in climate change and needing to reduce the use of fossil fuels. He equates nuclear power with a strong medicine that also has a potentially strong side effect.

TATSU: So which do you want to choose? You may have to choose nuclear power eventually. I mean, climate change is a life-threatening event for the world. So the world may have to take medicine of nuclear power. But you have to be very, very careful. And you have other choices, I would recommend nuclear power to be the last.

LONSDORF: Japan doesn't have a lot of other choices. Slowly, a handful of nuclear reactors in the country have restarted, passing new safety regulations. Many more are held up in court battles as local governments refuse to take the risk. And even more are slated to be decommissioned as utilities give up on them altogether.

KAZUO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Back in Fukushima, near Daiichi, nuclear worker Kazuo Okawa stops his car...


LONSDORF: ...And gets out to look at a sight he never thought he'd see - tons of radioactive topsoil scraped from the Earth during the cleanup efforts being piled high next to the road. This is in Futaba, his old hometown, where much of the land has been slated as a storage site for this contaminated soil. Okawa says he'll never come back, even if evacuation orders for the town are eventually lifted.

KAZUO: (Through interpreter) Who wants to live next to this - this nuclear waste?

LONSDORF: He shakes his head, almost in disbelief.

KAZUO: (Through interpreter) I thought nuclear power was safe. I thought it was 100% safe.

LONSDORF: But now, like a lot of Japan, he doesn't want anything to do with it.

KAZUO: (Through interpreter) I'm afraid of nuclear power. In one moment, it devastated our home.

LONSDORF: And now, Okawa says, he's 100% against it.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.


CHANG: Kat Lonsdorf is NPR's Above The Fray fellow. The fellowship supports reporting from undercovered parts of the world. Tomorrow, we look at renewable energy in Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.