Fukushima joins Chernobyl in renewable revival

2013_Fukushima_NB-2 A waterlogged radiation and tsunami warning sign found on Fukushima beaches in 2013. Photo: Nils Bøhmer - Credit: Nils Bøhmer

Japan’s northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, devastated during the 2011 earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster, is looking to transform itself into a hub of solar and wind energy, Japanese media has reported.

By so doing, Fukushima will join something of a trend that’s taking root in areas struck by nuclear catastrophe. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl, site of the 1986 reactor explosion and meltdown, is now home to a solar power plant of its own.

The triple reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant left an area the size of Hawaii to decontaminate and forced the evacuation of some 160,000 people – only 20 percent of whom have returned.

At Chernobyl, much of the land surrounding the ruined Number 4 reactor won’t be inhabitable for another 24,000 years. But now, some 3,800 solar panels are producing power in the shadow of the notorious plant.

In the Fukushima prefecture, many of the villages closest to the plant are frozen in time. Homes have fallen into disrepair and weeds have been left to swallow up sidewalks, roads and once well-tended gardens, while boar and other wild animals roam the streets. Much of the land is still too toxic to farm and many fear returning to live on it. But Japan now has a plan to prevent it from going to waste.

By 2024, 11 solar plants and 10 wind farms are expected to generate 600 megawatts of electricity on Fukushima’s abandoned lands. That’s roughly two-thirds of the energy output of a typical nuclear power plant, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

It’s a change the local population welcomes. According to a 2017 survey of Fukushima’s residents, 54 percent spoke out in favor of renewed energy projects in the area.

That shift in preference is now taking shape thanks to $2.75 billion in financing from groups including the government-run Development Bank of Japan and Mizuho Bank in the private sector.

The plan also envisions the construction of an 80-km wide grid within Fukushima to connect the generated power with the power transmission network of Tokyo Electric Power Co – and send it on to metropolitan Tokyo.

The work has already begun in earnest: “More than a gigawatt of solar-energy capacity has been added — the equivalent of more than three million solar panels,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Some of the energy produced by these early units will be used to power the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

This is all part of the plan for the northeastern Fukushima prefecture to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2040. In addition to the solar and wind power, the plan includes a large hydropower project, geothermal power and a hydrogen fuel plant.

And it’s not just the Fukushima prefecture that’s investing in solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power: Japan as a whole plans to generate a quarter of its power from renewable sources by 2030. And the country already has a good start on that. At current, about 17 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources.

Japan relied heavily on nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster, getting some 30 percent of its power from 54 nuclear power plants. Now, after strict new rules for restarting nuclear reactors went into effect, only nine of those are back online and their future is uncertain. The newfound investment and interest in renewable development is just what Japan needs to bridge that nuclear gap.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no