Japan Races to Build New Coal-Burning Power Plants, Despite the Climate Risks

Satsuki Kanno lives across the bay from a coal-burning power plant under construction in Yokosuka, Japan.

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Just beyond the windows of Satsuki Kanno’s apartment overlooking Tokyo Bay, a behemoth from a bygone era will soon rise: a coal-burning power plant, part of a buildup of coal power that is unheard-of for an advanced economy.

It is one unintended consequence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost a decade ago, which forced Japan to all but close its nuclear power program. Japan now plans to build as many as 22 new coal-burning power plants — one of the dirtiest sources of electricity — at 17 different sites in the next five years, just at a time when the world needs to slash carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming.

“Why coal, why now?” said Ms. Kanno, a homemaker in Yokosuka, the site for two of the coal-burning units that will be built just several hundred feet from her home. “It’s the worst possible thing they could build.”

Together the 22 power plants would emit almost as much carbon dioxide annually as all the passenger cars sold each year in the United States. The construction stands in contrast with Japan’s effort to portray this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo as one of the greenest ever.

The Yokosuka project has prompted unusual pushback in Japan, where environmental groups more typically focus their objections on nuclear power. But some local residents are suing the government over its approval of the new coal-burning plant in what supporters hope will jump-start opposition to coal in Japan.

The Japanese government, the plaintiffs say, rubber-stamped the project without a proper environmental assessment. The complaint is noteworthy because it argues that the plant will not only degrade local air quality, but will also endanger communities by contributing to climate change.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is the major driver of global warming, because it traps the sun’s heat. Coal burning is one of the biggest single sources of carbon dioxide emissions

A heat wave, intensified by climate change, killed more than 1,000 people in Japan in 2018.  
Credit…Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press
Workers checking drains at Fukushima in January.
Credit…Pool photo by Kimimasa Mayama/EPA, via Shutterstock 

Japan is already experiencing severe effects from climate change. Scientists have said that a heat wave in 2018 that killed more than 1,000 people could not have happened without climate change. Because of heat concerns, the International Olympic Committee was compelled to move the Tokyo Olympics’ marathon events to a cooler city almost 700 miles north.

Japan has used the Olympics to underscore its transition to a more climate-resilient economy, showing off innovations like roads that reflect heat. Organizers have said electricity for the Games will come from renewable sources.

Coal investments threaten to undermine that message.

Under the Paris accord, Japan committed to rein in its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2030 compared to 2013 levels, a target that has been criticized for being “highly insufficient” by climate groups.

“Japan touts a low-emissions Olympics, but in the very same year, it will start operating five new coal-fired power plants that will emit many times more carbon dioxide than anything the Olympics can offset,” said Kimiko Hirata, international director at the Kiko Network, a group that advocates climate action.

Japan’s policy sets it apart from other developed economies. Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, is set to phase out coal power by 2025, and France has said it will shut down its coal power plants even earlier, by 2022. In the United States, utilities are rapidly retiring coal power and no new plants are actively under development.

Work is under way on the Yokosuka plant, one of 22 new coal-burning facilities expected in the next five years.
Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times 

But Japan relies on coal for more than a third of its power generation needs. And while older coal plants will start retiring, eventually reducing overall coal dependency, the country still expects to meet more than a quarter of its electricity needs from coal in 2030.

“Japan is an anomaly among developed economies,” said Yukari Takamura, an expert in climate policy at the Institute for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo. “The era of coal is ending, but for Japan, it’s proving very difficult to give up an energy source that it has relied on for so long.”

Japan’s appetite for coal doesn’t solely come down to Fukushima. Coal consumption has been rising for decades, as the energy-poor country, which is reliant on imports for the bulk of its energy needs, raced to wean itself from foreign oil following the oil shocks of the 1970s.

Fukushima, though, presented another type of energy crisis, and more reason to keep investing in coal. And even as the economics of coal have started to crumble — research has shown that as soon as 2025 it could become more cost-effective for Japanese operators to invest in renewable energy, such as wind or solar, than to run coal plants — the government has stood by the belief that the country’s utilities must keep investing in fossil fuels to maintain a diversified mix of energy sources.

Together with natural gas and oil, fossil fuels account for about four-fifths of Japan’s electricity needs, while renewable sources of energy, led by hydropower, make up about 16 percent. Reliance on nuclear energy, which once provided up to a third of Japan’s power generation, plummeted to 3 percent in 2017.

The Japanese government’s policy of financing coal power in developing nations, alongside China and South Korea, has also come under scrutiny. The country is second only to China in the financing of coal plants overseas.

At the United Nations climate talks late last year in Madrid, attended by a sizable Japanese contingent, activists in yellow “Pikachu” outfits unfurled “No Coal” signs and chanted “Sayonara coal!”

A target of the activists’ wrath has been Japan’s new environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, a charismatic son of a former prime minister who is seen as a possible future candidate for prime minister himself. But Mr. Koizumi has fallen short of his predecessor, Yoshiaki Harada, who had declared that the Environment Ministry would not approve the construction of any more new large coal-fired power plants, but lasted less than a year as minister.

Protesters in Pikachu suits criticized Japan’s shift to coal at the United Nations climate meetings in Madrid in December.
Credit…Susana Vera/Reuters
Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan’s new environmental minister, has spoken only generally about eventually moving away from coal.
Credit…Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press 

Mr. Koizumi has shied away from such explicit promises in favor of more general assurances that Japan will eventually roll back coal use. “While we can’t declare an exit from coal straight away,” Mr. Koizumi said at a briefing in Tokyo last month, the nation “had made it clear that it will move steadily toward making renewables its main source of energy.”

The Yokosuka project has special significance for Mr. Koizumi, who hails from the port city, an industrial hub and the site of an American naval base. The coal units are planned at the site of an oil-powered power station, operated by Tokyo Electric Power, that shuttered in 2009, to the relief of local residents.

But that shutdown proved to be short-lived.

Just two years later, the Fukushima disaster struck, when an earthquake and tsunami badly damaged a seaside nuclear facility also owned by Tokyo Electric. The resulting meltdown sent the utility racing to start up two of the eight Yokosuka oil-powered units as an emergency measure. They were finally shut down only in 2017.

What Tokyo Electric proposed next — the two new coal-powered units — has left many in the community bewildered. To make matters worse, Tokyo Electric declared that the units did not need a full environmental review, because they were being built on the same site as the oil-burning facilities.

The central government agreed. The residents’ lawsuit challenges that decision.

Some new coal projects have faced hiccups. Last year, a consortium of energy companies canceled plans for two coal-burning plants, saying they were no longer economical. Meanwhile, Japan has said it will invest in carbon capture and storage technology to clean up emissions from coal generation, but that technology is not yet commercially available.

Coal’s fate in Japan may reside with the country’s Ministry of Trade, which pulls considerable weight in Tokyo’s halls of power. In a response to questions about the coal-plant construction, the ministry said it had issued guidance to the nation’s operators to wind down their least-efficient coal plants and to aim for carbon-emissions reductions overall. But the decision on whether to go ahead with plans rested with the operators, it said.

“The most responsible policy,” the ministry said, “is to forge a concrete path that allows for both energy security, and a battle against climate change.”

Tetsuya Komatsubara, a fisherman in Yokosuka and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the plant. Regarding rising temperatures, he said, “It’s time to do something about that.”
Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times 

Local residents say the ministry’s position falls short. Tetsuya Komatsubara, 77, has operated a pair of small fishing boats out of Yokosuka for six decades, diving for giant clams, once abundant in waters off Tokyo.

Scientists have registered a rise in the temperature of waters off Tokyo of more than 1 degree Celsius over the past decade, which is wreaking havoc with fish stocks there.

Mr. Komatsubara can feel the rise in water temperatures on his skin, he said, and was worried the new plants would be another blow to a fishing business already on the decline. “They say temperatures are rising. We’ve known that for a long time,” Mr. Komatsubara said. “It’s time to do something about that.” SOURCE

We have good reasons to be alarmed about nuclear reactors

A Tokyo Electric Power Co. official wearing a radioactive protective gear conducts a tour of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan.

Let me tell you about nuclear reactors and me.

Because suddenly, on Sunday, a nuclear calamity was on everybody’s mind, GTA residents jolted into a queasy awareness of the aging Pickering facility when emergency officials “accidentally” issued a false alarm during testing of the alert system.

A vast complex hunkered down on the shore of Lake Ontario which, we learned just a day later — lousy timing — the Doug Ford government now intends to extend the life of the facility beyond its planned 2024 shuttering.

One of the largest nuclear power stations in the world — with six active CANDU reactors — and one of the oldest. Should have been taken offline years ago, as environmentalists urged.

It does not engender much faith in the competence of the nuclear station’s management when they botch a simple communications exercise. Two hours passed before they reversed the erroneous warning. What if it had been a real emergency? Is it seriously possible that Ontario Power Generation is still relying on Amber Alert-type notification for the public’s protection?

Not to scare the bejeezus out of folks, but …

An emergency alert sent to cellphones through the provincial emergency reporting system around 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2020, was a "human error" sent during a routine training exercise, Ontario's solicitor general said.

An ordinary chest x-ray measures 0.1 millisievert (mSv) of radiation. The average person in North America is exposed to about 3 mSv a year — “background doses” — from natural radiation, which includes cosmic radiation from outer space.

Exposure to 4 sieverts of radiation will kill one out every two people. Just 1 sievert can lead to hair loss, cataracts and infertility.

Six years after the 2011 meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima generating station in Japan — caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami — a robot was finally able to access a location near the reactor 2 core to measure then-current radiation levels: a jaw-dropping 530 sieverts of radiation per hour.

This is the “clean” energy promoted by many as a substitute for coal-fired plants to reduce emissions causing climate change.

I mention this because, on my way to cover the earthquake within two days of the event, I forced my driver/fixer to detour to the stricken station. A 30-kilometre exclusion and evacuation zone had been imposed. We proceeded to within one kilometre of the facility. Then a blizzard came out of nowhere. The snow chains on the car snapped. We were stuck — for eight hours. That’s how long it took for emergency crews to rescue us.

I could feel my ovaries melting.

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nucler power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is seen in this May 1986 file photo, two-three days after explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Fukushima was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, which was the worst in history, though only one of the reactors had exploded — spewing 20,000 roentgens of ionized radiation per hour.

It was entirely due to human error. A flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by a plant crew conducting tests within a bureaucratic environment of sloppy safety measures. Five per cent of the radioactive reactive core was released into the atmosphere and cascaded downwind. Two men died that night, another 28 within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning. We’ll never know — Moscow will never reveal — how many cancers and deaths have since been attributable to the meltdown, though Greenpeace, admittedly not a credible source, predicted an eventual related death total of 93,000. The World Health Organization estimated some 4,000 subsequent deaths.

Cancer rates around Chernobyl are unusually high, 65 times normal according to some reports.

When I went to Chernobyl in 2009, upwards of 4,400 Ukrainian children and adolescents had already undergone operations for thyroid cancer.

Equipped only with a hand-held Geiger counter to measure hot-hot-hot spots around the facility — crippled No. 4 reactor since entombed in a 10-storey sarcophagus of lead-and-steel shielding — and the surrounding, abandoned, postnuclear town of Pripyat, I spent a couple of weird days in the badlands of Chernobyl, most contaminated place on the planet. The fallout was 400 times more radioactive than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Pripyat is a modern-day Pompeii, left in situ when government forced its inhabitants to evacuate lickety split. Within a year of the catastrophe, 400,000 Ukrainians from around the region were relocated.

Equipped only with a hand-held Geiger counter to measure hot-hot-hot spots around the facility and the surrounding, abandoned, postnuclear town of Pripyat, I spent a couple of weird days in the badlands of Chernobyl, writes Rosie DiManno.

Yet some of the old folks came back (illegally) to their little farms, willing to risk cancer in familiar and beloved surroundings where the topsoil is so toxic than no produce grown within the 30 kilometre exclusion zone can be sold except to other Pripyat residents. Nor can their domestic animals be sold for meat.

I spent several hours in the company of three babushkas, clinking shot glasses of rotgut, a moonshine made from fermented sugar and potatoes, which the elderly ladies insisted was the best antidote for radiation sickness. Then I slept in a dormitory formerly occupied by Chernobyl scientists — sharing a lump bed with a dozen feral cats.

Spooky town, providing a glimpse of what a postnuclear world would look like. Because rare as generator station accidents may be, they do happen. We delude ourselves into thinking we’ve harnessed the power of God. Then someone presses the wrong button and … whoosh.

So yeah, a wee email booboo at Pickering was nothing to pooh-pooh about. And it’s alarming that the province would quietly approve extending the facility’s lifespan beyond its planned 2024 closure, a story broken Monday by the Star’s Robert Benzie. As Benzie reported, the plant’s operating licence was renewed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in August 2018, with $75 million invested in maintenance. It will continue to operate until at least 2025. Then, a further 40 years before the plant is fully decommissioned, done in stages to allow for the safe disposal (storage) of used fuel.

Colour me ashen but I don’t like the sound of “maintenance” for an old crone nuclear plant, as if putting a patch on a bicycle tire. I don’t like nuclear plants at all, smack in the middle of a densely populated urban region. And I really don’t like the move-along nothing-to-see-here reassurances from bureaucrats.

I’ve seen the wreckage.

But maybe you just rolled over on Sunday morning and went back to sleep.

Rosie DiManno

Japan should scrap nuclear reactors after Fukushima, says new environment minister

Shinjiro Koizumi says: ‘We will be doomed if we allow another accident to occur’

 Newly appointed Japanese environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi has called for nuclear reactors to be scrapped rather than restarted after Fukushima. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Japan’s new environment minister has called for the country’s nuclear reactors to be scrapped to prevent a repeat of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Shinjiro Koizumi’s comments, made hours after he became Japan’s third-youngest cabinet minister since the war, could set him on a collision course with Japan’s pro-nuclear prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

“I would like to study how we will scrap them, not how to retain them,” Koizumi, 38, said. “We will be doomed if we allow another nuclear accident to occur. We never know when we’ll have an earthquake.”

Koizumi faced an immediate challenge from the new trade and industry minister, who said that ridding Japan of nuclear power was “unrealistic”.

“There are risks and fears about nuclear power,” Isshu Sugawara told reporters. “But ‘zero-nukes’ is, at the moment and in the future, not realistic.”

Japan’s government wants nuclear power to comprise 20% to 22% of the overall energy mix by 2030, drawing criticism from campaigners who say nuclear plants will always pose a danger given the country’s vulnerability to large earthquakes and tsunamis.

All of Japan’s 54 reactors were shut down after a giant tsunami caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Nuclear power accounted for about 30% of Japan’s energy production before the disaster. Today, just nine reactors are back in operation, having passed stringent safety checks introduced after the Fukushima meltdown.

But the government is unlikely to meet its target of 30 reactor restarts by 2030 amid strong local opposition and legal challenges. MORE


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Nuclear sunset overtakes fading dreams

As atomic energy gets ever more difficult to afford and renewables become steadily cheaper, a nuclear sunset awaits plans for new plants.

Photo: Thomas Millot @tomlaudiophile nuclear cooling tower

LONDON, 21 January, 2019 − Once hailed as a key part of the energy future of the United Kingdom and several other countries, the high-tech atomic industry is now heading in the opposite direction, towards nuclear sunset.

It took another body blow last week when plans to build four new reactors on two sites in the UK were abandoned as too costly by the Japanese company Hitachi. This was even though it had already sunk £2.14 billion (300 bn yen) in the scheme.

Following the decision in November by another Japanese giant, Toshiba, to abandon an equally ambitious scheme to build three reactors at Moorside in the north-west of England, the future of the industry in the UK looks bleak.

The latest withdrawal means the end of the Japanese dream of keeping its nuclear industry alive by exporting its technology overseas. With the domestic market killed by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, overseas sales were to have been its salvation. MORE