Living only nine miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which melted down in March of 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 that were shut down after the disaster. “No way can I allow him to do it. 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.
While Abe and other proponents say Japan’s nuclear plants are safe to reopen, opponents want them permanently shuttered, saying they’re too fragile to withstand the country’s many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
“It’s an opportune time,” said Alla Weinstein, the 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.
The issue is causing lots of anxiety in the United States and Japan, which provides only 10 percent of its own energy.
Environmentalists 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 Barack 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 say more energy imports are necessary and that more disasters are inevitable if the nuclear plants are turned back on. Japan, which lies on the so-called “ Ring of Fire,” has more than 100 active volcanoes, situated on fault lines that make 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.”
‘It makes me really upset’
Fears 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, so long as they won approval from local governments.
Abe, a conservative elected to a second term earlier in December, had first ordered the plants closed amid a huge backlash that followed the Fukushima meltdown. Now he’s promoting nuclear energy as a way to rev up Japan’s long-struggling economy, part of his “Abenomics” platform.
In addition to restarting Japan’s plants, Abe is looking to export nuclear technology to spark more business, already signing 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,” said Yoshizawa. “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 will help bring down 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.”
The issue has sparked protests throughout Japan.
In Tokyo, each Friday at 6 p.m. protesters gather outside Abe’s residence, and they’ve set up quarters in a tent outside the government’s trade ministry office a few blocks away.
Yoshitaka Mukohara, the president of a publishing company and the secretary-general of the Anti-Nuclear Kagoshima Network, organized a September protest outside the Sendai nuclear reactor. It might become the first plant to reopen in 2015.
With the plant not far from an active volcano, it would be deadly if the volcano erupts like Mount Ontake, Mukohara said. He wants all 48 plants to remain closed, and he isn’t worried about energy costs.
“Even though it doubles the electricity cost, it’s still better than dying,” he said. “It’s better than destroying your life.”
Like many nuclear opponents, he said it would make more sense for Japan to continue getting energy supplies from the United States and elsewhere.
“We just need it,” he said. “We can just import it from the places that sell it to us cheap.” If a nuclear plant explodes in Japan, he said, “one country will disappear. . . . We don’t want America to ignore this issue, because this will be a huge problem.”
Some opponents, such as 78-year-old Koichi Ito 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.”
‘We have enough electricity’
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’s 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 the opposition to nuclear power grows in Japan, U.S. energy companies are eyeing opportunities for more business overseas.
Two months ago, Commerce Secretary Pritzker 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.”
Japan – the third largest consumer of oil in the world, after the U.S. and China – depends mainly on the Middle East for its crude oil, but it began using more natural gas after the Fukushima disaster, according to a July report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It said Japan was seeking more natural gas and was engaged in talks with U.S. exporters, with Japanese companies particularly interested in American efforts to produce more natural gas from shale formations.
The Sierra Club’s Solomon fears that Japan would gain easier access to U.S. liquefied natural gas under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if the rules are changed to force the U.S. Department of Energy to automatically approve all energy exports. Under an amendment to the U.S. Natural Gas Act that passed in 1992, she said, the department can’t block any applications to countries that have free-trade agreements with the United States.
“That is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure to frack more in order to meet significant demands for Japan,” Solomon said.
In the meantime, Japan is still trying to sort out the many troubles caused by Fukushima.
Yoshizawa said he still had 330 cows on the dairy farm he managed near Namie. The government has ordered him to get rid of them, but he said he wouldn’t do it. At one of the October protests in Tokyo, he displayed photos of a black cow that had developed white spots, which he attributed to radiation exposure.
“These cows are live evidence of what’s happening after the cows were exposed,” Yoshizawa said. “This order of the government that we have to kill them would be like destroying the evidence.”
After the disaster, he said, his neighbors went to an evacuation center. He said he saw many farmers crying after losing their cattle. They were grown men who, he said, had been traumatized by Fukushima and would never go back to dairy farming.
He said he knew he’d been exposed to high levels of radiation, too. But so far, he said, he hasn’t felt sick, only energized, traveling throughout Japan to try to turn the tide against nuclear power in his country.
“I’m becoming a history teller,” Yoshizawa said.