Mark Pendergrast

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Japan’s Tipping Point blog 2 — Tetsunari Iida and ISEP

This is my second blog about Japan’s current energy situation and its future, about which I wrote in my short book, Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World. In my first post, I explained how I came to Japan to study Eco-Model Cities and renewable energy policy two months after the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima meltdown. I asserted that Japan is a kind of “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the world, since it is facing the same issues that we all face, only sooner and more starkly. Japan has no fossil fuel, and it has scrapped plans to build more nuclear power plants. It therefore must ramp up renewable energy efforts, energy efficiency, and lifestyle changes.

The comments that my first blog inspired turned into a vituperative argument over the benefits and perils of nuclear power, with interpersonal attacks that added much heat but little light. So let me address the nuclear power issue briefly: The subtitle of my book referred to the “post-Fukushima world” because nuclear policy in Japan and other parts of the world has undergone a seismic shift following the meltdown, with a subsequent surge in interest in renewable options. I did not intend, however, to focus on nuclear power in my book, and I don’t want to focus on it in my blogs, either. My underlying assumption is that nuclear power in Japan will not be a viable alternative in the future. Even pro-nuclear Japanese experts such as Takao Kashiwagi, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, admit that Japan will not build any more nuclear plants for at least two decades.

Particularly in Japan, nuclear power plants are hazardous since the country sits on top of fault lines that make earthquakes and tsunamis a constant danger. All of Japan’s nuclear plants are located on the ocean’s edge for access to water as a coolant. I am not a fan of nuclear power for many reasons. Human beings who run nuclear power plants make mistakes, and in Japan there is a long history of cover-ups of such mistakes. Etc. But really, can we move on from this issue? For the purposes of discussion, I would simply like to assume that nuclear power is not a viable option for Japan’s future. In the book, and in my blogs, I want to focus on renewable energy. I propose to deal with each form of renewable energy one at a time in future blogs — geothermal, solar photovoltaic, solar hot water, wind, biomass, hydro/tidal — as well as food, energy efficiency, and lifestyle.

In this blog, I’ll talk about Tetsunari Iida and Tokyo’s Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP) that he founded and continues to lead. A trim, short, self-assured man of 52, Tetsunari Iida seems to lack all pretension despite his current celebrity. He doesn’t appear to be a radical, even though his opponents think he is. He told me with pride how in the late 1990s he had criticized TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, about its nuclear plants, while simultaneously working with the utility as a partner on a wind turbine project in Hokkaido. “I believe in dialogue,” he said, “not confrontation.” He comes across as a mild-mannered man with a sense of humor and a large dose of common sense.

Iida grew up on a farm in western Japan. His octogenarian father still sends him a package of home-grown vegetables every month. He heats his home, just to the north of Tokyo, with a wood stove. Iida started his career as a nuclear engineer. I asked him what led him to quit in 1992, expecting him to cite the Chernobyl meltdown, but he said he wasn’t really worried about safety issues in those days. He hated the groupthink atmosphere in which it wasn’t permissible to question any aspect of nuclear energy policy. All of his papers were censored. “It was a kind of soft fascism,” he said. He fled to Sweden, where he studied renewable energy. After shuttling back and forth to Japan, he returned to his native country in 1998 and founded ISEP two years later.

Since then, he has become the chief Japanese gadfly of nuclear power, while advocating strenuously for renewable energy. He has helped to found several green mutual funds, offering a small return to idealistic investors who want to support wind and micro-hydro. But until 3/11, he was mostly a voice crying in the wilderness, largely ignored by bureaucrats, governing politicians, and the mainstream media.

Now that has changed. “All of a sudden our voice is taken up more centrally,” he told me. He is constantly in demand for interviews on TV, radio, and in print. “Within the last month, ISEP has become one of the most well-known organizations in Japan. I now have deep connections in the cabinet and with both political parties.”

In his talks, Iida shows a slide in which Japanese nuclear power and fossil fuel use gradually dwindle to nothing by 2050, while renewable energy increases to account for 50 percent of current use. The other 50 percent will supposedly be covered by energy savings and efficiencies. By 2020, ISEP proposes that renewables will contribute 30 percent of Japan’s power supply and energy efficiency 20 percent, with coal and oil at 15 percent, liquid natural gas 25 percent, and nuclear power 10 percent. That scenario assumes no new nuclear reactors and a 40-year life for existing nuclear power plants, which will slowly be phased out. Iida would prefer to see all nuclear plants closed by 2020, however, with their energy share replaced temporarily by natural gas.

The ISEP plans for renewable electric generation capacity are fairly specific. Hydro currently supplies eight percent and is to be brought up to 14 percent by 2050. Wind will blow up from 0.4 percent to eight percent, solar from 0.3 percent to 14 percent, geothermal from 0.3 percent to eight percent, and biomass from 1.1 percent to six percent. While those are ambitious goals, they are perhaps feasible. But how is the other 50 percent in energy savings and efficiency going to be achieved? Iida is vague about that. He talks about switching to LED lights and installing better house insulation. He seems to think that the Japanese can drastically reduce their energy consumption without significantly modifying their lifestyles. I don’t see how that is possible.

Nonetheless, of all the people I interviewed in Japan, Tetsunari Iida was among those who impressed me the most, and I hope that his sudden rise to celebrity means that his message will be heeded. He tries to remain optimistic even as he observes that the Japanese energy policy has relied on a kind of “political delusion without rationality or evidence.” He believes that 3/11 marks the third drastic turning point in modern Japanese history. The first was the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which Japan opened its doors to the outside world. The second was the defeat that ended World War II. Iida says that a mass delusion and blind faith in military might and the emperor led to the disastrous war, and no one was allowed to question it. “But after the war, everyone questioned it.” The same kind of unquestioning allegiance to nuclear power drove him to oppose it, and now, in the post-3/11 world, he hopes that Japan will throw itself into a massive energy shift.