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INSIGHT: Fukushima’s ‘caldrons of hell’ keep questions unanswered


A convenience store in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 12, 2016, remains as it was when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear accident

After spending slightly more than two years in the capital of Fukushima Prefecture, I was assigned to The Asahi Shimbun’s Tokyo head office starting on May 1. I moved house the other day.

I had previously never been based in Fukushima, although I have long covered energy policy and a number of nuclear accidents as a reporter for the newspaper.

On April 11, 2014, shortly after I was assigned to Fukushima, I was told the words that would serve as a starting point for my news-gathering activities there. I am citing that phrase, which I quoted in a previous column, for a second time here:

“Whatever the future of nuclear power generation, it will remain essential to expand renewable energy sources to ensure a stable energy supply and to fight global warming. Fukushima Prefecture has swaths of land and a historical background for doing so.

The energy industry has always been its leading local industry. The prefecture is home to the Joban coal field, and Iwaki was a city of coal mines. Nobody will be able to change Japan unless Fukushima takes it upon itself to do the task.”

The remark was made by Yukihiro Higashi, then professor of thermal energy at Iwaki Meisei University.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the Fukushima prefectural government defined “building communities that do not rely on nuclear energy” as a leading principle of its post-disaster rebuilding efforts.

It set a goal of having renewable energy sources cover all energy demand in the prefecture by around 2040. Higashi played a central role in working out that vision.

The goal may seem preposterous, but the professor’s remarks led me to realize that it isn’t.


Fukushima Prefecture produced 10 percent of Japan’s electricity before it was hit by the nuclear disaster. Most of that electricity was sent to the greater Tokyo area, so the prefecture was sometimes sarcastically referred to as a “colony of Tokyo.”

But all that would have been impossible had it not been for the “swaths of land” and the “historical background” suitable to having electric power generated there.

Energy has always been the representative local product of Fukushima Prefecture. That history dates back to the late Edo Period (1603-1867), when the Joban coal field was discovered.

Energy created in the prefecture continued to support Japan’s modernization even after electricity replaced coal as the leading player.

Living in Fukushima Prefecture provides plenty of opportunities to learn about that history.

A cluster of old hydroelectric plants stands in the environs of Lake Inawashiroko. A dozen of these plants, which were built during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras and taken over by Tokyo Electric Power Co., continue to send electricity to the greater Tokyo area to this day.

A step-like array of hydroelectric plants along the Tadamigawa river in the prefecture’s western Oku-Aizu district was built in the postwar period in a desperate drive to “rebuild Japan.”

Both hydroelectric undertakings drew on the bountiful water resources that are the blessings of the prefecture’s terrain.

Nuclear reactors and a bunch of giant thermal power plants began to spring up along the Pacific coast during the high economic growth of the postwar period.

When cast in the context of that history, the goal set forth by the prefectural government appears to betray the pride of its own “leading local industry.” The prefecture’s people pledged that they are the ones who will replace the leading player of energy.

Ten days after I met Higashi, I visited the Yamatogawa Shuzoten sake brewery in Kitakata, Fukushima Prefecture, to see Yauemon Sato, the ninth-generation chief of the brewery, which has been operating since the mid-Edo Period.

Sato had founded Aizu Electric Power Co. in August 2013, setting out on an ambitious plan to help rebuild the prefecture by means of renewable energy sources.

“You know the caldron of hell?” Sato asked me. “You will be sent to hell and will be boiled in that caldron if you do evil. There are four such caldrons in Fukushima Prefecture. And they are still gaping.”

The No. 1 through No. 4 reactors of TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which caused a calamity that will go down in the history of humankind, could certainly be called “caldrons of hell.”

The use of renewable energy sources is a means for closing those caldrons and for obliterating them from Fukushima Prefecture.

More than two years later, the use of renewable energy sources is steadily gaining ground in the prefecture, covering 26.6 percent of all energy demand as of the end of March. The goal remains far in the distance, but the ratio has been gaining about 1 percentage point every year.

The caldrons are still gaping. TEPCO has yet to solve the question of how to block groundwater from flowing into the reactor buildings, which is only increasing the stockpile of water contaminated by radioactive substances. That is preventing the utility from starting serious work to decommission the reactors.


“What should we do?” a 59-year-old woman, evacuated from Okuma, which co-hosts the crippled nuclear power plant, to Koriyama, also in Fukushima Prefecture, asked me when I interviewed her about a year ago.

“Should we go on with our new life here, or should we return to our hometown? My thoughts remain in limbo, and I cannot get around to making up my mind.”

I did not know how to answer her question.

More than 94,000 people of Fukushima Prefecture continue to live as evacuees. The government of the town of Okuma, where all residents remain evacuated, plans to create a rebuilding base with a “habitable environment,” hopefully by fiscal 2018.

But full rebuilding of the town lies far beyond that goal. And that is leaving many people “in limbo.”

What should we do? My pursuit of that unanswered question will continue.

May 19, 2016 - Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , ,

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