Jeff Shimamoto, a lawyer and businessman, was living with his family in Tokyo when the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan melted down 10 years ago this month.
“In the few days afterward, there wasn’t a major issue in Tokyo,” said Shimamoto, who now lives in California. “But I think on the fourth day, when the winds started shifting toward Tokyo, there was mass panic and hysteria in the big city.”
Shimamoto said that suddenly, there was an overwhelming fear that radiation would seep into people’s homes. Video tutorials on how to tape up windows and wall vents started popping up online.
“There was this fear, this really serious fear that the winds [were] bringing the radiation into Tokyo.”
“There was this fear, this really serious fear that the winds [were] bringing the radiation into Tokyo,” Shimamoto said.
For many, those fears never went away: In Fukushima Prefecture, where the effects of the disaster were most acutely felt then and now, tens of thousands of people are still unable to return home due to concerns about radiation.
Like the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents before it, the Fukushima disaster forced people and governments across the globe to rethink nuclear power. A number of countries paused their nuclear programs to reassess their safety in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. And protesters took to the streets around the world, arguing that the risk of a potential nuclear accident outweighed the benefits of carbon-neutral energy.
But as concerns about climate change grow, some see nuclear power as a crucial option in weaning the world off of fossil fuel.
Shimamoto is somewhere in between: “If [nuclear power] goes bad, it could kill you. It’s a necessary evil — but one that I hope would go away at some point.”
‘We can’t see it’
No one was killed as a direct result of the nuclear meltdown, even in Fukushima or at the plant itself. In 2018, the first cancer death of a worker was linked to the cleanup.
But anti-nuclear protests sprang up worldwide, and the fear of radiation was pervasive.
“It’s very similar to what we’re going through with the pandemic, we don’t know where it is, we can’t see it. Radiation is not something that’s red and flying through the air. So, we had to figure out how to keep it out.”
“It’s very similar to what we’re going through with the pandemic, we don’t know where it is, we can’t see it,” Shimamoto said. “Radiation is not something that’s red and flying through the air. So, we had to figure out how to keep it out.”
Shimamoto and his family went to stay with his father in Okinawa for two weeks back then. On the street, he said, you weren’t quite sure who you should be getting close to or what was safe to touch.
“And then, there was also the hoarding. People were worried that OK, we’re not going to be able to go outside, we’re going to be stuck in our homes, so we [have] to go to the convenience store and buy all the toilet paper, we have to buy all the milk, we have to do all the things. So, there was this fear.”
Meanwhile, countries paused their nuclear power development plans and took time to reassess, according to Peter Fraser, head of division for gas, coal and power markets at the International Energy Agency.
Japan took all its reactors offline after the disaster, and only nine of 54 are back up and running now.
In the spring of 2011, Switzerland announced it wouldn’t build any new nuclear power plants, and Germany announced it would close its existing fleet by 2022.
Global nuclear power generation didn’t climb back to pre-Fukushima levels until 2019, according to data from the International Energy Agency.
In Western Europe and the US, aging power plants and opposition to building new ones means nuclear power is likely to decline significantly in the coming decades.
A missed opportunity?
But globally, the International Energy Agency projects a small increase in power generation from nuclear sources over the next two decades due to new capacity in countries including India, the United Arab Emirates and, most significantly, China.
“In fact, all of the net increase I think we’ll see in electricity production from nuclear power is going to come from China.”
“In fact, all of the net increase I think we’ll see in electricity production from nuclear power is going to come from China,” Fraser said.
Nuclear energy capacity worldwide is expected to climb slightly from about 440 gigawatts today to 456 gigawatts in 2040, according to the IEA, including planned new projects.
Pro-nuclear advocates and some environmentalists believe this expansion is a good thing, and they would like to see more countries follow suit.
“I used to be against nuclear power. I actually used to protest against it,” said Zion Lights, an author and longtime climate activist in the UK and former spokesperson for the activist group Extinction Rebellion. “I changed my mind when I realized that we need it and that it's one of the biggest tools for combating climate change.”
Right now, more than a quarter of the world’s low-carbon energy comes from nuclear power. And some advocates see more nuclear energy, including a new generation of smaller reactors in development now, as a way to fill the energy gap as the world moves away from electricity generated by coal, oil and natural gas.
In future energy scenarios studied by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, most of those that limited global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels projected an increase in the share of energy coming from nuclear.
This month, Lights is launching a new grassroots environmental group to advocate for nuclear power, in part to “undo some of the damage that I feel I might have done before, as a climate activist.”
Even in postdisaster Japan, there are people who see climate change as a threat that might justify the risks of nuclear power.
Toyomi Sakai McLeod is a software coder who lives in Hamamatsu, Japan, in the vicinity of a shuttered but not yet decommissioned nuclear power plant that looms large in her mind.
When the tremors of the 2011 earthquake reached her home, she remembers rushing to her baby’s nursery in fear, and taking shelter with him under a table in her home.
“If the next big earthquake happened close to us, we need to worry about where to live, or what to do,” she said, referring to fears of a nuclear accident at the plant.
But she also worries about climate change. She’s noticed summers getting hotter, and that’s something that impacts her day-to-day life more than worries of a worst-case scenario at the nearby power plant.
“I don’t like [nuclear energy] but I know we need it. So, I don’t think I can say if it’s 100% good or 100% bad.”
“I don’t like [nuclear energy] but I know we need it,” she said. “So I don’t think I can say if it’s 100% good or 100% bad.”
'The biggest bottleneck'
The problems at Fukushima live on. It’s expected to take 30 or 40 years to remove all the radioactive fuel from inside the three damaged reactors.
And across Japan, public opposition to reopening closed reactors is still strong.
“This is the biggest bottleneck for the nuclear industry to overcome,” said Miho Kurosaki, head of Japan and Korea research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in an October interview with The World.
“Even though we know that nuclear is a zero-carbon technology,” Kurosaki said, “we believe that nuclear may not be the biggest solution for Japan to achieve the zero-carbon goal by 2050.”
Last fall, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced a goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In his address announcing the target, he also said the country would “advance” nuclear power, a statement met by boos in Parliament.
“Even though we know that nuclear is a zero-carbon technology, we believe that nuclear may not be the biggest solution for Japan to achieve the zero-carbon goal by 2050.”
Globally, nuclear is still trying to regain its footing 10 years after the Fukushima accident. But its future will be determined not just by fears of nuclear fallout, but by competition from renewable energy.
Over the past decade, the average cost of new solar and wind generation has plummeted due to cheaper production costs, while nuclear power has actually increased in price due, in part, to added regulation.
According to data from the financial advisory firm Lazard, the average lifetime cost of solar energy from a new photovoltaic installation dropped by 89% between 2009 and 2019. The price of electricity from onshore wind dropped by 70%, while nuclear increased by 26%, making it more expensive than either other source.
“That’s something that wasn't the case a decade ago,” said Peter Fraser from the International Energy Agency. “[When] people [were] looking for low-carbon generation options, really, nuclear was the first thing they looked at.”
Fraser says that’s no longer true.
Nuclear energy has its advantages: energy production is constant, and it can generate a lot of electricity on a relatively small footprint.
But for now, renewable energy sources look to keep expanding at a much faster clip than nuclear as the world continues to reinvent its energy economy.