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Japan's Nuclear Dilemma

Interviewee: Charles D. Ferguson, President, Federation of American Scientists
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Senior Editor/Senior Staff Writer, Council on Foreign Relations
March 9, 2012

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One year after the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the country has shut down nearly all its nuclear plants over safety concerns and faces a multi-year cleanup effort for contaminated materials at affected sites. As a result, the Japanese economy is taking a hit, says nuclear expert Charles D. Ferguson, due to loss of significant power generation and high imported energy costs. Yet, he adds, Japan is not open to renewable energy as an alternative."There's a lot of resistance institutionally in Japan to using renewable energies, wind and solar in particular, and also geothermal," he says, and the government is trying to figure out if they can "get any public support to start bringing these nuclear power plants back into operation." On lessons the nuclear industry can learn from Fukushima, Ferguson says there needs to be better accountability to the public and improvements in nuclear safety procedures.

What is the status of the Daiichi reactors and what challenges do they face cleaning up after the accident a year ago? How does this cleanup compare, say, to Chernobyl?

This is one of the largest nuclear plants in the world. There were three other reactors operating at the time of the earthquake. There were hydrogen explosions at all three of those reactors that eventually led to partial meltdowns of those reactors' cores. If you think back to March and April last year, we were trying all sorts of desperate measures to get water into the reactor--water cannons, helicopters trying to dump water, fire hoses--it was very chaotic. Within two or three weeks after the accident had started, the authorities were able to connect offsite electrical power to the plant, and that allowed pumps to be restarted. Eventually, the radioactive decay continued to go down to low enough levels after some months [and] the plant is now in a cold, shut-down condition.

There's a lot of resistance institutionally in Japan to using renewable energies, wind and solar in particular, and also geothermal, which is kind of astonishing.

Now we are facing this huge cleanup. There are many tons worth of nuclear solid and liquid waste that will have to be disposed of; there's a lot of low-level waste, billions of gallons worth of water that's contaminated. So question is what to do with that. What the United States did [after Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979] was to go in about two or three years after the accident and extract the partially melted fuel from Three Mile Island, put it in a storage cask and ship it to Idaho National Lab where that material still resides. It's an above-ground storage site. So Japan might do something very similar. It's going to take at least another year or two before the major stuff is all cleaned up.

The Japanese government has shut down nearly all the nuclear reactors in the country for inspection and maintenance. How is this country surviving with so much of its power generation turned off, and how will this affect the Japanese economy?

Right before the accident, there were fifty-four commercial reactors in Japan that were operational, and as you rightly say, very few are operating right now; within the next couple of months, those will be probably shut down as well. Those fifty-four reactors provided some 30 percent of Japan's electricity. It's a very significant portion of their electrical supply. I was in Tokyo late July last year. Tokyo in summer looks like Washington D.C.--very hot and humid. I was at a government building, I was at universities, and they hardly used air conditioning. I stayed at a nice hotel--at least I had some air condition there--and even then, about half of their reactors were operating. So now when hardly any reactors are operating, they have really cut down significantly on their energy use. Their conservation measures have helped somewhat, but this is having an impact on their industry. Toyota city, which is south of Tokyo, it's near the big Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. It was one of the first power plants to be shut down, and that affected Toyota's operations, just as an outstanding example of how this is hitting Japan's industry and economy.

They have been importing more liquefied natural gas. Japan is fortunate that they had planned ahead. They have the most liquefied natural gas terminals in the world--over forty; only one of those was significantly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. So they still have that infrastructure in place but prices have gone up greatly. In a few months after the accident, it was hovering around three times the normal price. That's also having a hit on Japan's economy. They are thinking about what to do next.

What's the Japanese nuclear industry facing long term?

In early summer, Japan is going to announce a new energy policy; I have talked to some colleagues who have seen drafts of this. No surprise is that they're probably going to cut back on nuclear power significantly. I don't know how much and if they are going to totally phase it out, but they are rethinking their nuclear fuel cycle technology. They invested a lot of money in reprocessing where they can reuse plutonium and what's called mixed oxy-fuel, but that's been a boondoggle--it's never operated commercially. Another area where they are having technical problems is a fast nuclear reactor at a place called Monju, and I've been to that site as well.

The question is after they sunk a lot of money into that technology, will they continue using it or not? They'll probably either phase that out or starve it for funds and put it on basically kind of a life support. There are big question marks as to the future of these advanced nuclear technologies that Japan was trying to develop and trying to become a leader in. And they are really trying to think about whether they can get any public support to start bringing these nuclear power plants back into operation.

What's the government doing to develop alternatives? They have been spending a lot of money on imported fuel right now, but how feasible is it to replace 30 percent of power generation within five years?

The industry has a great opportunity here to improve safety. I think that's hopefully one of the major improvements that is going to come out of the Fukushima accident.

I don't think it's realistic for them to really significantly replace their power generation with renewables. There's a lot of resistance institutionally in Japan to using renewable energies, wind and solar in particular, and also geothermal, which is kind of astonishing. It's in the ring of fire and the Japanese people love to use geothermal energy for spas. So for recreational purposes, they use geothermal energy all the time, but they just don't have the mindset of using it to generate electricity.

They also have this mindset that it's a very small country and they don't have resources for wind and solar, which is kind of silly, as we see where they are in terms of their latitude. If Germany can do it, Germany can invest in wind and solar and make it happen, Japan could also do it, but the institutional barrier is the way their electrical utilities are structured. Japan is split up into ten regional monopolies. These electric power companies have a lot of influence on both the local and national governmental levels--there are a lot of those officials blocking the development of decentralized technologies like wind and solar. Instead they favor big nuclear power plants, big coal, big natural gas, and that's been the cultural mindset. So it's going to take some time, political will, and leadership to change that.

How has the accident affected public opinion?

The Japanese public had been told repeatedly by the industry and the government that nuclear power was essentially very safe, and that these accidents couldn't happen. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Japanese public had this pendulum swing from being strongly supportive of nuclear power, at about two-thirds supportive of nuclear right before the accident, to right after the accident, two thirds of the public being strongly opposed to nuclear power. We've seen similar reactions in other countries around the world.

What lessons can the industry learn from this, especially as nuclear power continues to be considered by countries with no history of it?

The industry has a great opportunity here to improve safety. I think that's hopefully one of the major improvements that is going to come out of the Fukushima accident. It's unclear, though, whether the industry will be totally on board with this because some people I've talked to will say, well, this was just an extraordinary event--the earthquake and tsunami, this only happens once every several hundred years. And there are others who say, wait a minute--there are deeper problems at stake here. There were management and culture issues that need to be dealt with, not just in Japan but other countries. We're right now at a crossroads in terms of where nuclear safety could go.

The Fukushima accident really has a strong message for the nuclear industry. They need to provide better information to the public; they need to be honest about failures of management; they need to instill a better culture within the workforce at nuclear plants; they need people who are always asking: what if? What if something could go wrong? Is there a way to improve safety? So what I think will come out of the accident is an industry that'll ultimately be stronger and more responsive to the public.

If we put ourselves in a position of a decision-maker in a country that's considering acquiring their first nuclear power plant, what do they need to know? They need to make sure that they have the people who are adequately trained, who have the cultural mindset: every day they're at work they're thinking about safety, and they need an independent governmental regulatory agency that has the authority to order a nuclear plant shut down if there's a safety problem. And that's going to be a challenge for many countries because there's going to be pressure to keep these nuclear power plants operating, especially in countries that are in dire need of new electricity supplies.

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