Two years after the near nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan has yet to turn off reactors for good. And it is a very tall order indeed, says Alexander Freund, head of DW's Asia service.
Alexander Freund is the head of DW's Asia service
What's wrong with the Japanese!? Two years after the disastrous nuclear incident in Fukushima, many people in Germany are wondering whether the Japanese learned anything from the event. Vast areas surrounding Fukushima will remain uninhabitable for decades. The plant operator TEPCO is now state-owned, meaning that Japanese taxpayers have to pay for the damage out of their own pockets. Politicians and lobbyists have assigned fault - it was not the technology that failed, but people, they say. It was people who did not follow regulations, and it was people who took the wrong actions. It was not the technology.
It is easy to follow the logic of the supporters of nuclear power. They believe nuclear energy is infallible if the rules are adhered to properly. And that is what Japan's leaders think. Instead of going along with the nationwide consensus and ushering in a transition to alternative energy, the new government is sticking to nuclear energy. It is even planning to build new reactors. What is wrong with the Japanese?
A bitter pill
But it isn't that black and white. The tech savvy Japanese have learned hard lessons from Fukushima. It has been quite a bitter pill. Leaving all emotions aside, they have been forced to realize that the economy, which is already performing poorly, simply cannot afford to do without nuclear energy, especially with China at it's heels. The world's most populous country is unflinchingly sticking to nuclear energy, as are other Asian neighbors.
For Japan, which does not have many natural resources, it would be too expensive to import all of its energy - coal from Australia, gas from the US, oil from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Aside from that, the new superpower China could end up blocking vital trade routes - a justified fear, as recent spats have shown. So Japan isn't sticking with nuclear energy out of pure belief in technology, but because it has no other choice.
Germans would do well to hold back on their criticism. The transition from nuclear energy will be difficult, even for Germany, despite the overwhelming consensus in the country. There are technical and political challenges, such as the construction of power lines, and there are social and economic consequences when the cost of electricity goes up. But compared to Japan's burdens, these are tiny obstacles that Germany can certainly overcome.
Comparison with Germany
Germany is also in a relatively comfortable position. If demand exceeds supply, the country can simply buy nuclear energy from neighboring France, or elsewhere in Europe. Japan, on the other hand, cannot just get nuclear energy from a neighbor. And when it comes to the development of alternative energy sources, it will take years to establish the infrastructure for them. Large offshore wind farms are being planned. But considering the high, rocky coastline and the regular typhoons that sweep across the island nation, this will be difficult to realize.
Japan's position in the Pacific Ring of Fire would allow the country to make better use of geothermal power. It could also improve on its energy consumption by installing better insulation in buildings and creating better, energy-saving habits. But even these measures would not be enough for Japan to supply the country's megacities with the energy they need. Not yet, anyway.
One of the hard lessons the Japanese have learned is that it will not be easy to make a transition away from nuclear energy. Until about 2040, Japan will not have sufficient infrastructure in place for alternative sources of energy. And that will only happen if the Japanese people continue to make demands on their government. They will have to be very patient, though, even if many of them have already lost faith in politics. But 30 years of waiting is a small price to pay compared to long-term nuclear radiation. Highly radioactive plutonium, for example, has a half-life of over 24,000 years. A Japanese government rarely lasts longer than a year.