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Japan’s nuclear-power fears might spur exports of U.S. energy

TOKYO – Living only nine miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which melted down in March 2011, dairy farmer Masami Yoshizawa said he was angry after he and his herd were exposed to high levels of radiation.

“About 200 cows died,” said Yoshizawa, 60, who’s even angrier now that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to fire up some of Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors, which were shut down after the disaster. He and other proponents say they are safe to reopen.

“No way can I allow him to do it,” Yoshizawa said. I will fight the rest of my life.”

Nearly four years after the Fukushima catastrophe, Japan has a serious case of nuclear jitters, which could be a boon for U.S. companies eager to export energy. Japan produces only 10 percent of its own.

Opponents want the nuclear plants permanently closed, saying they’re too fragile to withstand the country’s many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

“It’s an opportune time,” said Alla Weinstein, president of Principle Power Inc., a Seattle technology developer focused on offshore wind energy, who traveled to Japan and South Korea in October as part of a trade mission with U.S Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Environmentalists in the United States worry that energy demands in Japan – already the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas – will lead to more hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in the United States.

And they fear the situation will worsen if export rules are eased under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Obama’s plan to expand trade ties throughout the Pacific Rim.

“It’s just too big of a risk for communities in the United States and the environment and the global climate for Japan to be reliant on U.S.-fracked gas,” said Ilana Solomon, the trade program director for the Sierra Club.

In Japan, opponents of the nuclear plants say more energy imports are necessary and that more disasters are inevitable if the nuclear plants are turned back on. Japan, which is within the so-called Ring of Fire, has more than 100 active volcanoes on fault lines, which makes the nation highly susceptible to earthquakes.

“Japan is earthquake country, so it’s very scary here,” said Isao Ogawa, 74, of Tokyo. “Since Fukushima, the nuclear plants give us a very scary impression. I’m very afraid.”

Fear rose grew in late September when Mount Ontake erupted, killing 57 people. It happened just as Japanese officials announced that two of the 48 nuclear plants had met tougher safety regulations and could reopen in 2015 if approved by local governments.

Abe, a conservative elected to a second term in December, first ordered the plants closed after Fukushima meltdown. Now he’s promoting nuclear energy as a way to strengthen Japan’s long-struggling economy.

In addition to restarting Japan’s plants, Abe is looking to export nuclear technology to spark more business. He already has signed an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to build a $22 billion nuclear plant on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

“He’s become a salesperson,” Yoshizawa said. “It makes me really upset.”

In October, a poll by Kyodo News showed that 60 percent of Japanese citizens opposed restarting the nuclear plants.

But Abe easily won re-election and has plenty of support. Those who back his plan say it would help lower electricity costs after Japan lost 26 percent of its power generation by closing its nuclear plants.

“I think it’s a good idea to restart because just the geothermal energy is not enough,” said Yukiko Hayashi, 39, an accountant from Tokyo.

But even she is worried about another meltdown: “We believed that they were earthquake-resistant buildings, but it was proved they were not. If they’re going to build one in my neighborhood, I don’t want that.”

Some nuclear opponents, such as Koichi Ito, 78, of Tokyo, are old enough to remember the nuclear devastation from 1945, when the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 100,000 people.

“I have experience of the war and I know how awful is the atomic bomb,” Ito said. “I don’t think nuclear energy is safe. If there is any opportunity for me to vote, I would vote against.”

With Kagoshima’s prefectural assembly and governor signing off on the plan to reopen the Sendai plant, opponents acknowledge there’s little they can do to stop the momentum.

Akihiro Yoshidome, 77, a retired writer from Tokyo who is involved in the protests, said it might take another disaster to get the Abe administration to reverse course.

“In the near future they will make a mistake and they will fail somehow,” he said. “This is the stupidity of the Japanese government. ... We have enough electricity.”

As opposition to nuclear power grows in Japan, U.S. energy companies see opportunities for more business overseas.

Two months ago, Pritzker, the commerce secretary, took executives from 20 U.S. companies to Japan as part of her first trade mission to Asia, all of them tied to energy or health-care businesses.

In a speech in Tokyo, Pritzker said the economic futures of the United States and Asia were “inextricably intertwined.” She called Japan’s energy security a top priority and said, “American companies can and want to help.”

Weinstein, of Principle Power, said the trade mission “exposed interesting opportunities” for U.S. energy companies in Japan and South Korea: “The question is going to be whether they’re going to change their policies to focus on renewable energies.”