Japan minister rejects calls to quit after Fukushima comment — Bloomberg Business

” Japan’s environment minister, Tamayo Marukawa, has brushed aside calls from opposition lawmakers to resign from her ministerial post after saying the government’s radiation decontamination target for the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant had no grounding in scientific evidence.

The controversy stems from comments made by Marukawa, a surprise cabinet pick by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the run-up to last year’s climate talks in Paris, during a Feb. 7 speech in Nagano prefecture.

According to a report from the Shinano Mainichi, a regional newspaper, Marukawa questioned the basis of the government’s long-term goal for reducing additional radiation levels near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to an annual dose of 1 millisievert or less. Some areas near the Fukushima plant exceed an annual dose of 20 millisieverts, according to the latest data compiled by the Environment Ministry.

Despite apologizing and withdrawing the comments, Abe’s opponents in parliament this week demanded that Marukawa, 45, a former television news anchor turned upper house lawmaker, resign from cabinet.

The incident and the minister’s vague stance on whether Japan should approve any new coal-power plants have given Abe’s foes and environmentalists leverage to question her suitability to the environment post. The focus on Marukawa also underscores the challenge she faces in implementing tough rules to combat climate change, while appeasing industries depending on carbon-emitting energy sources.

“I am very disappointed as I had high expectations when we had a new minister before the climate change talks,” Hisayo Takada, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan, said by phone Tuesday. “The environment ministry obviously has to work on decontamination and bring the level back to 1 millisievert. Her remarks were unacceptable.”

The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends a maximum dose of 1 millisievert of additional radiation per year for the general public, and 20 for nuclear workers. While the ICRP views any additional radiation increasing chances of developing cancer, prolonged exposure of 100 millisieverts or more leads to a significant risk of cancer.

The millisievert is a measure of the absorption of radiation by the human body.

Fresh Opportunity

The minister addressed the controversy during a news conference on Feb. 12.

“I would like to offer my sincere apology, especially to the victims of earthquakes, if my comments caused misunderstanding that I don’t take the long-term decontamination target seriously,” she said.

Abe’s appointment of Marukawa, part of a broader push to include more women in senior government positions, was part of a cabinet reorganization in October aimed at reviving the world’s third-largest economy.

Her selection was also seen as presenting Japan with a fresh opportunity to beef up the nation’s environmental credibility in the face of growing criticism that the world’s fifth-largest emitting country isn’t doing enough to combat climate change. Just 44 at the time of her appointment, Marukawa was markedly younger than her predecessor, Yoshio Mochizuki, 68.

“When she took office, her ministry was doing its own projects on smart energy systems and had been increasingly aggressive on coal,” Andrew DeWit, a political economy professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said by e-mail.

During Marukawa’s speech at the COP21 climate talks in December, she said Japan would establish global warming measures based on any agreement that came out of Paris. She also reiterated Japan’s pledge to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2030 from 2013 levels.

While Marukawa proposed a policy earlier this month that would place greater scrutiny on emissions from the nation’s electricity producers, she’s drawn fire for her unclear stance on new coal-fired power plants. Despite saying late last year that she opposed new coal plants, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper reported earlier this month that she would approve four new projects. When pressed at a news conference earlier this month, she stopped short of saying whether she would approve new projects.

Coal Plants

The matter is of urgent interest to Japan’s utilities, which are facing the prospect of increasing competition once the retail electricity market is fully liberalized in April. Coal is the cheapest fuel for thermal power generation.

“Japan is going in a direction that ignores all the measures that need to be beefed up after COP,” Mika Ohbayashi, director at the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said by phone. “She gave into industry pressures as the power companies prepare for liberalization” because some plants want to use cheap coal as fuel.

In 2012, the environment ministry adopted the 1 millisievert exposure benchmark in the area surrounding the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 1 reactor in accordance with recommendations from the ICRP and the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan.

Japan evacuated 12 towns following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Citizens were allowed to return to the town of Hirono six months after the disaster. Evacuation orders weren’t lifted for parts of Tamura and Kawauchi until 2014, and the entirety of Naraha until September.

Clean-up efforts at Fukushima are also ongoing. The prime minister promised in 2013 that the government would take the lead in resolving ongoing water management issues at the Fukushima site ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Two years later, hundreds of tons of water continue to pour into the reactor buildings, while tainted water at other parts of the site are still overflowing into the ocean.

Cabinet Performance

Marukawa’s radiation comments are the latest gaffe to hit Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in recent weeks. LDP lawmaker Kensuke Miyazaki offered his resignation last week following reports of an extramarital affair. Akira Amari stepped down as economy minister last month over allegations of financial impropriety.

Akira Nagatsuma, member of the opposition’s Democratic Party of Japan and former minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, said on Monday in parliament that Marukawa was unfit to be a minister. Akihiro Hatsushika, a member of the Japan Innovation Party, called for Marukawa to resign on Monday.

“Marukawa’s performance so far suggests she either doesn’t understand her portfolio or simply hasn’t much interest in it,” Rikkyo University’s DeWit said. “But I think she will indeed continue, as the Abe regime can hardly afford to have yet another ministerial resignation while its name-brand growth policy goes south.” ”

by Stephen Stapczynski and Chisaki Watanabe

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Can Japan recapture its solar power? — MIT Technology Review

” It’s 38 °C on the Atsumi Peninsula southwest of Tokyo: a deadly heat wave has been gripping much of Japan late this summer. Inside the offices of a newly built power plant operated by the plastics company Mitsui Chemicals, the AC is blasting. Outside, 215,000 solar panels are converting the blistering sunlight into 50 megawatts of electricity for the local grid. Three 118-meter-high wind turbines erected at the site add six megawatts of generation capacity to back up the solar panels during the winter.

Mitsui’s plant is just one of thousands of renewable-power installations under way as Japan confronts its third summer in a row without use of the nuclear reactors that had delivered almost 30 percent of its electricity. In Japan people refer to the earthquake and nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, as “Three-Eleven.” Radioactive contamination forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate and terrified millions more. It also sent a shock wave through Japan’s already fragile manufacturing sector, which is the country’s second-largest employer and accounts for 18 percent of its economy.

Eleven of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors shut down on the day of the earthquake. One year later every reactor in Japan was out of service; each had to be upgraded to meet heightened safety standards and then get in a queue for inspections. During my visit this summer, Japan was still without nuclear power, and only aggressive energy conservation kept the lights on. Meanwhile, the country was using so much more imported fossil fuel that electricity prices were up by about 20 percent for homes and 30 percent for businesses, according to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI).

The post-Fukushima energy crisis, however, has fueled hopes for the country’s renewable-power industry, particularly its solar businesses. As one of his last moves before leaving office in the summer of 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan established potentially lucrative feed-in tariffs to stimulate the installation of solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy. Feed-in tariffs set a premium rate at which utilities must purchase power generated from such sources.

The government incentive is what motivated Mitsui to finally make use of land originally purchased for an automotive plastics factory that was never built because carmakers moved manufacturing operations overseas. The site had sat idle for 21 years before Mitsui assembled a consortium to help finance a $180 million investment in solar panels and wind turbines. By moving fast, Mitsui and its six partners qualified for 2012 feed-in tariffs that promised industrial-scale solar facilities 40 yen (35 cents) per kilowatt-hour generated for 20 years. At that price, says Shin Fukuda, the former nuclear engineer who runs Mitsui’s energy and environment business, the consortium should earn back its investment in 10 years and collect substantial profits from the renewable facility for at least another decade.

Overnight, Japan has become the world’s hottest solar market: in less than two years after Fukushima melted down, the country more than doubled its solar generating capacity. According to METI, developers installed nearly 10 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity through the end of April 2014, including 9.6 gigawatts of photovoltaics. (The nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi had 4.7 gigawatts of capacity; overall, the country has around 290 gigawatts of installed electricity-generating capacity.) Three-quarters of the new solar capacity was in large-scale installations such as Mitsui’s.

Yet this explosion of solar capacity marks a bittersweet triumph for Japan’s solar-panel manufacturers, which had led the design of photovoltaics in the 1980s and launched the global solar industry in the 1990s. Bitter because most of the millions of panels being installed are imports made outside the country. Even some Japanese manufacturers, including early market leader Sharp, have taken to buying panels produced abroad and selling them in Japan.

How Japan­­—once the world’s most advanced semiconductor producer and a pioneer in using that technology to manufacture photovoltaic cells—gave away its solar industry is a story of national insecurity, monopoly power, and money-driven politics. It is also a tale with important lessons for those who believe that the strength of renewable technologies will provide sufficient incentives for countries to transform their energy habits.

In Japan, for most of the 2000s, impressive advances in photovoltaics were ignored because the country’s powerful utilities exerted their political muscle to favor nuclear power. And despite resurging consumer demand for solar power and strong public disdain for nuclear, the same thing could happen again. Will a country with few fossil-fuel resources and bleak memories of the Fukushima disaster take advantage of its technical expertise to recapture its position as a leading producer of photovoltaics, or will it turn away from renewable energy once more? ”

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