90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nuclear Alternative Faces Pushback In Japan

The Matsukawa geothermal power plant, Japan's first geothermal plant built in 1966, is seen at Hachimantai city in Iwate prefecture, northern Japan on August 4, 2011. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty Images)

The Matsukawa geothermal power plant, Japan’s first geothermal plant built in 1966, is seen at Hachimantai city in Iwate prefecture, northern Japan on August 4, 2011. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty Images)

In Japan, all of the country’s 48 operational nuclear reactors are currently shut down for safety checks. It’s been three years since Japan’s nuclear disaster, when a tsunami knocked out the electricity at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and caused the meltdown of three reactor cores.

The Japanese people are not keen on restarting the nuclear plants, but that means Japan desperately needs alternative sources of energy. From Japan, Eliza Strickland of IEEE Spectrum magazine reports on one renewable energy source that’s causing some controversy.

Every Friday evening in downtown Tokyo, protesters gather outside the prime minister’s house to rally against his nuclear energy policies. In a recent poll by a major Japanese broadcaster, 60 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the government’s plan to restart nuclear plants.

But if Japan wants to give up nuclear power without relying on fossil fuels, it will have to develop its renewable energy sector. Experts say one bright spot for Japan is its excellent geothermal energy reserves — essentially, reservoirs of hot steam trapped miles underground. Utility companies can drill down to that steam, then use the steam to power turbines and produce electricity.

Most of the hot springs are volcanic hot springs. So we use the same resources, the geothermal people and the onsen industry people.
– Hirokazu Nunoyama

Masaho Adachi of the Japan Geothermal Association says unlike other kinds of renewable energy like solar and wind, geothermal energy is constant and predictable.

“After the huge earthquake, all the Japanese know that in Japan there is very large potential for geothermal energy. And we already have the technology. So the conditions are totally changed,” he said through an interpreter.

There’s just one problem: The Japanese are worried that drilling into these geothermal reservoirs will disrupt their beloved natural hot springs.

At hot spring hotels throughout Japan, guests flock to the bathing rooms where they can lounge in the hot, mineral-rich spring water. These hot spring baths are called onsen, and Hirokazu Nunoyama, director of the Japan Spa Association, says they are a cultural tradition in Japan.

“It goes back thousands of years as you can imagine,” Nunoyama says through an interpreter. “It has a very, very long history, and as you know Japan has a very humid and hot climate – so they like to go into onsen. And as you can imagine, years ago you have the difficulty to boil the water. So this is a blessing from nature that you have hot springs throughout the nation.”

Nunoyama says there are about 13,000 hot spring inns around the country, which cater to millions of Japanese and foreign tourists every year. And he worries that tapping Japan’s geothermal reservoirs will damage the sources of the hot springs, and put hotels out of business. Both the deep geothermal reservoirs and the shallower hot springs draw heat from the magma of Japan’s volcanoes, Nunoyama says.

“In Japan, most of the hot springs are volcanic hot springs. So we use the same resources, the geothermal people and the onsen industry people, they use the same resources,” he says. “The development of the geothermal plants would take place near the hot spring resorts. That’s where the problem lies.”

We can realize geothermal power plants in Japan without any interference to hot springs.
– Masaho Adachi

What’s more, Nunoyama notes that many of the best spots for geothermal power plants are located in Japan’s national parks. The Japanese government passed a law in 2012 allowing companies to explore the geothermal energy resources in national parks. A few projects are now cautiously moving forward. But Adachi of the Japanese Geothermal Association swears that drilling into the deep geothermal reservoirs wouldn’t damage the shallower hot spring sources. Through an interpreter he tells me that such fears are founded on a misunderstanding of geology.

“The onsen people, we need to explain well, because they have no idea about underground,” Adachi says. “They use the hot springs but they don’t know geology or underground condition… But we in the geothermal industry, we start with an understanding of underground conditions. So we can realize geothermal power plants in Japan without any interference to hot springs.”

Adachi admits that many people may not welcome industrial-scale power plants in Japan’s pristine national parks. But if the alternative is reopening nuclear power plants, people may decide they can live with a few industrial buildings amid the natural splendor.

Reporter

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Well, all of Japan's 48 operational nuclear reactors are shut down for safety checks, and most Japanese are not keen on restarting them. But that means Japan desperately needs alternative sources of energy. From Japan, Eliza Strickland of IEEE Spectrum reports on one renewable energy source that's causing a lot of controversy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELIZA STRICKLAND: Every Friday evening in downtown Tokyo, protesters gather outside the prime minister's house to rally against his nuclear energy policies. In a recent poll by a major Japanese broadcaster, 60 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the government's plan to restart nuclear plants.

But if Japan wants to give up nuclear power without relying on fossil fuels, it will have to develop its renewable energy sector. Experts say one bright spot is Japan's excellent geothermal energy reserves, reservoirs of hot steam trapped miles underground. Utility companies can drill down to that steam, then use it to power turbines and produce electricity.

Masaho Adachi of the Japan Geothermal Association tells me through an interpreter that unlike other kinds of renewable energy like solar and wind, geothermal energy is constant and predictable.

MASAHO ADACHI: (Through translator) After the huge earthquake, all the Japanese know that in Japan there is very large potential for geothermal energy. And we already have the technology. So the conditions are totally changed.

STRICKLAND: There's just one problem. The Japanese are worried that drilling into these geothermal reservoirs will disrupt their beloved natural hot springs. At hot spring hotels throughout Japan, guests flock to the bathing rooms where they can lounge in the hot, mineral-rich spring water. These hot spring baths are called onsen. Hirokazu Nunoyama is director of the Japan Spa Association, and he explains through an interpreter that onsen are a cultural tradition in Japan.

HIROKAZU NUNOYAMA: (Through translator) It has a very, very long history, and as you know Japan has a very humid and hot climate. So they like to go into onsen. So this is a blessing from nature that you have hot springs throughout the nation.

STRICKLAND: Nunoyama says there are about 13,000 hot spring inns around the country, which cater to millions of Japanese and foreign tourists every year. And he worries that tapping Japan's geothermal reservoirs will damage the sources of the hot springs and put hotels out of business. Nunoyama says both the deep geothermal reservoirs and the shallower hot springs draw heat from same source.

NUNOYAMA: (Through translator) In Japan, most of the hot springs are volcanic hot springs. The development of the geothermal plants would take place near the hot spring resorts. That's where the problem lies.

STRICKLAND: What's more, Nunoyama notes that many of the best spots for geothermal power plants are located in Japan's national parks. The Japanese government passed a law in 2012 allowing companies to explore the geothermal energy resources in the parks and a few projects are now cautiously moving forward.

But Masaho Adachi of the Japanese Geothermal Association swears that drilling into the deep geothermal reservoirs wouldn't damage the shallower hot spring sources.

ADACHI: The onsen people, they use the hot springs but they don't know geology or underground condition. But we in the geothermal industry, we start with an understanding of underground conditions. So we can realize geothermal power plants in Japan without any interference to hot springs.

STRICKLAND: Adachi admits that many people may not welcome industrial-scale power plants in Japan's pristine national parks. But if the alternative is reopening nuclear power plants, he says people may decide they can live with a few industrial buildings amid the natural splendor. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Eliza Strickland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: And please stay right there. You are listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Spotlight

We now have a digital bookshelf! Explore all our books coverage or browse by genre.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

January 23 4 Comments

How ‘The Good War’ In Afghanistan Went Bad

Jack Fairweather's new book argues the war could turn out to be the defining tragedy of the 21st century.

January 23 4 Comments

How To Keep That Fitness Resolution

It's that time of year when the post-New Year's crowd at the gym starts to thin. We get advice on how to stick with it.

January 22 Comment

The Playwright Behind ‘Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike’

Christopher Durang's Tony Award-winning comedy is currently being performed in 27 regional theaters across the U.S.

January 22 25 Comments

EdX CEO Lays Out Disruptive Vision For Higher Ed

Anant Agarwal believes MOOCs — massive online courses — can be a disruptive force for good in higher education.