A phoenix from the ashes: Fukushima sets sail for a nuclear-free and 100% renewable future
On the eve of the third anniversary of Japan’s triple disaster of March 2011 – the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown – people in Fukushima are setting sail towards a nuclear-free future. At the beginning of February, one of Japan’s most important renewable energy events, the 3rd Community Power Conference took place in Fukushima, some 60 km away from the Daiichi nuclear power plant. Fukushima Prefecture and its 2 million inhabitants has committed to a 100% renewable energy target and is just in the process of formulating the implementation roadmap towards this goal. Personally speaking, visiting Fukushima was one of most impressive experiences I have had in recent years.
Average radiation levels in Fukushima City and Minamisoma are still far above normal but not high enough to be dangerous for visitors only there for a few days. While more than 100,000 people are still not allowed to return to their villages, the evacuation order for some of the areas within a 20 km radius have been declared “Area 1” – meaning the evacuation order has been lifted.
The international conference, organised by the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), aimed to create a unified forum for people working on community-based renewable energy and to accelerate its development through discussion and knowledge exchange among practitioners and experts. Some 300 people from all over Japan as well as 20 international experts participated and I had the honour of giving the opening speech on the ‘Realization of a 100% Renewable Energy Society’.
During a field trip to Minamisoma, one of the areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami and terribly affected by the nuclear disaster, we visited abandoned towns and enormous greenfields that are still highly contaminated. It was jarring to ride a bus through an entirely intact village with supermarkets, gas stations, schools, kindergartens and playgrounds in which no one has lived for three years – a ghost village. There were also areas destroyed by the tsunami that still can’t be cleaned up because of the radiation levels.
We also had a chance to talk to the local people – farmers, entrepreneurs, teachers and children. At one of the panel discussions a farmer stood up and commented on her helplessness to cope with the fact that she couldn’t continue her families’ traditional silk production after hundreds of years. Fifteen-year-old students described the abrupt change to their day-to-day life and their lost faith in almost everything they were told before March 11th, 2011.
As mentioned above, the purpose of the conference, however, was not so much to look back at what had happened but rather to look to the future. For most of the event we discussed strategies and opportunities to accelerate renewable energy development in Fukushima and Japan. In this respect, the discussions showed an encouraging vision of the future in the face of past and current tragedy.
The importance and relevance of 100% renewable energy target setting as well as the Global 100% Renewable Energy campaign – of which the World Future Council is founding partner – was widely applauded, including by all international experts.
Although the conservative government of Japan has announced that it will restart operation of the existing nuclear power plants, many communities in Japan are rediscovering their power and are moving towards renewable energy already. This applies in particular to the farmer organisations that increasingly see renewable energy as a new source of income for their constituents. Farmers particularly see and understand the benefits of local ownership and the regional value added.
The picture of abandoned villages as well as the conversations with the people in Fukushima will always stick in my mind. And there is one further detail which I keep thinking about: Fukushima Prefecture has launched a programme that allows and supports the construction of large solar PV farms in contaminated areas such as the huge greenfields where agriculture is not possible anymore because of the radioactive contamination. Backed by the fact that the Fukushima prefecture has pledged to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2040, I wonder if there is a better symbol of converting the hugely negative impact of a nuclear disaster into positive momentum to move forward into a nuclear-free and fossil-free future.
Wednesday, February 12th, 2014