Renewable Renewal in Fukushima

An area of land abandoned after a horrific nuclear accident is poised to become a hub for clean energy

January 8, 2020

11:08 am

Almost nine years ago, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck with devastating force, registering as a 9.0 quake. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan (and the fourth-highest ever recorded, globally).

But, unfortunately, the punishment for local residents did not stop there.

The earthquake was followed less than an hour later by a tsunami, one with monstrously high waves. Together, the twin disasters were responsible for almost 16,000 deaths and $360 billion in damages.

Alas, there was more.

The tsunami’s waves swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As the New York Times reported that year, “While the plant was designed to withstand waves of about 19 feet, the tsunami was as high as 46 feet.” Once the sea water overwhelmed the plant’s seawall, the Verge reported, it “led to three reactor core meltdowns at the nuclear power station.”

It was the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century, unlike anything since the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986. The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents are the only ones in history to have been deemed “Level 7” accidents on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the highest (worst) rating possible as far as safety is concerned.

But whereas Chernobyl today remains largely an unsafe exclusion zone, Fukushima is on the verge of an interesting rebirth, one very much aligned with sustainability goals in mind. As the Japan Times first reported two years ago, “Fukushima Prefecture remains committed to becoming an international center for renewable-energy research and a domestic pioneer by meeting 100% of its energy demand via renewables by 2040.”

That project — going from the nadir of environmental degradation to a hub of renewable energy — is now moving forward. At a cost of $2.75 billion USD, the Guardian noted yesterday, the project will see the “construction of 11 solar and 10 wind farms on abandoned farmland and in mountainous areas by the end of March 2024. As the Verge reported recently, “Land that became too toxic for people to farm and live on after the 2011 meltdown ... will soon be dotted with windmills and solar panels.”

It’s a poetic and poignant turn for a region pilloried by the horrific effects of the nuclear accident. And it seems a decent metaphor for transforming land impacted by environmental or other devastation into a near sanctuary for climate-friendly renewable energy. (Although, to be sure, the land is still contaminated. In fact, as the New York Times reports, officials are still unsure what to do with the more than 1 million tons of water contaminated with radioactive material still in about 1,000 tanks at the impacted Fukushima site.)

But some are not heeding the metaphorical warning. While all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down after the Fukushima accident, nine are in operation today, reports the Guardian, and the Japanese government has a goal of operating 30 by 2030.

At least the Japanese Environment minister seems to have a reasonable perspective, noting when he joined President Abe’s cabinet in the fall that, “We will be doomed if we allow another nuclear accident to occur. We never know when we’ll have an earthquake."

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