Monju fiasco, Fukushima plans point to a better energy source — The Asahi Shimbun

” We are perhaps witnessing a turning point in history regarding humankind and energy.

The total capacity of facilities in Japan that sell electricity generated from solar power under the feed-in tariff system exceeded 30 gigawatts by the end of last year, according to figures of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

Most of those facilities began generating power after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. Their total capacity is worth 30 nuclear reactors, although actual output depends on the time of day and the weather.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that solar power has grown so big despite the many barriers, such as regional utilities essentially setting upper limits on the amount of electricity generated with renewable energy sources that they purchase.

And solar power is turning out to be useful.

Through inquiries with nine regional utilities, The Asahi Shimbun learned that electricity generated with solar power accounted for about 10 percent of power supply at peak demand last summer.

In the service area of Kyushu Electric Power Co., the ratio was close to 25 percent.

The shift to renewable energies is more pronounced on the global scale.

For example, global wind power capacity topped 430 gigawatts in 2015, according to the Global Status Report released on June 1 by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), an international body.

Global nuclear power capacity is now 386 gigawatts, according to figures of the International Atomic Energy Agency, so wind turbines have outstripped nuclear reactors in terms of output capacity.

Solar power has a total capacity of 227 gigawatts, nearly 60 percent of that of nuclear power.


A symposium was held June 4 in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, to commemorate the start of a large-scale solar farm project in the town of Tomioka, also in the prefecture. Tomioka remains entirely evacuated because of the nuclear disaster.

Under their own initiative, residents of the town plan to build a giant solar farm with an output capacity of 30 megawatts. Proceeds from the project will be used to help rebuild communities.

The plan is being led by Yoko Endo, a 66-year-old former music teacher, and her husband, Michihito, a 60-year-old former art teacher. The couple now live in evacuation in the city of Iwaki, also in Fukushima Prefecture.

The couple’s former home is in a government-designated “no-residence” zone, whereas Yoko’s family home nearby stands in a “difficult-to-return” zone.

Michihito’s 2 hectares of rice paddies have also been rendered unusable.

The couple said they thought they would still be able to produce something that would be good for Japan from their terrain, even if they could not return to Tomioka and no longer grow crops there.

They solicited cooperation from their “neighbors” in diaspora across the country for the solar farm project, and they obtained agreements from more than 30 landowners for the use of about 35 hectares of rice paddies.

The total cost of the project is 9.5 billion yen ($91 million), an exceptionally large figure for a project initiated by residents. Citizens’ investments will cover 1.3 billion yen of the expenses.

Proceeds from the project will be used to help elderly residents get to and from medical institutions and stores when they return to Tomioka. The money will also fund projects to help pass on farming technologies to younger generations when farming can resume in the town.

The couple plan to start building the solar farm this autumn and have it operational in March 2018.

“We hope to nurture the project so that people will look back and say that this solar farm project, led by the initiative of residents, was more bright and brilliant than any other project of the kind,” Yoko Endo said.

Other large-scale renewable energy projects are springing up in Fukushima Prefecture.


“An energy source that relies on nuclear power is not suited to human needs,” Tetsuya Takahashi, a professor of philosophy with the University of Tokyo, said in his keynote lecture during the Koriyama symposium. “Once it runs amok, it hurts human livelihoods to an unrecoverable extent.”

Takahashi was born in Iwaki and spent his childhood in Tomioka. People from that area are now aspiring to create an energy source that is better suited to their needs.

As I listened to the professor talk, my thoughts went to Monju, the prototype fast-breeder reactor.

In 1956, shortly after Japan set out on its nuclear development program, the government said in its initial long-term plan that a fast-breeder reactor “best fits the circumstances of Japan.” At the time, the reactor appeared to represent the best solution.

In the following years, the fast-breeder reactor became the symbol of Japan’s nuclear development.

The government has spent 1 trillion yen on the construction of Monju, which began in earnest in 1985. But its development program was suspended after sodium leaked from the reactor in 1995.

Things got so bad that the Nuclear Regulation Authority recommended to science minister Hiroshi Hase last November that Monju should be brought under a different operating body.

“The first thing to do is to implement reliable maintenance in a state of suspended operation,” a study group set up by the science ministry said May 27 in a report about Monju’s operating body.

Something as basic as that is not being done properly.

A project once thought to symbolize national policy was, after all, not best suited to the people’s needs. ”

by Toshihide Ueda



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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