Scientist says Japan needs nuclear power

The destroyed area is seen within the exclusion zone, near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

Tess Vigeland: Radiation leaks from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant have forced tens of thousands of small business owners and their employees from homes and jobs. Today, dozens of them traveled to Tokyo to protest the Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, and they way it's handling the crisis.

All this week, Marketplace's Scott Tong is reporting from Japan on how people and businesses have coped in the month since the earthquake.
Today, he meets a nuclear industry scientist doing his bit to get the country back on its feet.


Scott Tong: Atomic power engineer Tetsuo Shoji knows the crisis at Fukushima wasn't just a nuclear meltdown. It was a PR one, too.

Tetsuo Shoji: I cannot say it is better.

The plant's spewing radiation. It's poisoned local food and fish and created an electricity shortage. In the month since the quake, thousands of protesters have hit the streets, demanding that the nuclear industry be reined in. Shoji wasn't one of them.

Shoji: We cannot stop nuclear power in Japan.

Shoji teaches engineering at Tohoku University in Sendai and advises big energy firms that help fund his research. He says Japan doesn't have the luxury of sitting on oil and gas reserves like, say America.

Shoji: The U.S. is a very different situation from Japan, because you have a lot of natural resources. In Japan, we have nothing.

The country's fossil fuel import bill has quadrupled in the last decade. And like the U.S., Japan is addicted to energy. Every subway station seems to boast a light-up vending machine. Japanese toilets have heated seats. And lids that flip up and down electronically. It all takes energy. And Shoji says alternative sources like wind and solar power just can't produce the amount Japan needs.

In his university lab, Professor Shoji tests materials for new reactors. Not that there's much testing these days. His international staff -- post-doctoral students -- were called home once the radiation levels started to rise.

Shoji: I have 3 post-docs -- France, Bangladesh, China. All of them went back.

But here's the thing: foreigners may be nervous, but almost all Japanese think the outside world is overreacting. Shoji says that's because the nuclear power company didn't get the message out internationally that this crisis is manageable. That's one explanation. Another is, bad planning.

Tag Murphy teaches business at Tsukuba University. He says the nuclear "experts" never considered some of the really basic questions.

Tag Murphy: Can you justify why you would want to locate the world's most potentially dangerous technology on some of the world's most seismically unstable ground? Have you thought about that?

Nuclear power is the politically entrenched energy sector in Japan, according to political scientist Andrew DeWit at Ryokko University. He says that's what makes Tokyo Electric Power -- or TEPCO -- so tone deaf.

Andrew DeWit: They want to preserve the status quo, as much as possible. I mean you saw that. They wanted to build two new nukes in the middle of the meltdown. That's how lost in space these TEPCO guys are.

Nuclear expert Tetsuo Shoji is pretty close to TEPCO officials. He figures the industry's PR damage will last 10 years -- and he doesn't expect a new nuclear plant until then. In the meantime, he has a job to do.

Shoji: We need to explain, we need electricity. The economy is strongly based on electricity. No other way.

Shoji has some worries, like a shortage of experienced nuclear engineers down the line -- people who have built plants and really know how to manage them. That's why he says you need to keep building plants. And, of course, to provide the juice for the world's third largest economy.

Shoji: If we stop all plants, of course we have no electricity. It's a disaster. Dark.

In Sendai, Japan, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.


Vigeland: Tomorrow, in our ongoing coverage of post-crisis Japan, Scott meets a young Japanese businessman who says entrepreneurs are the best hope for restoring the country's economy.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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