In questioning its own reliance on nuclear power while endorsing its nuclear export efforts, Japan, with 54 seaside reactors ringing the country, finds itself pulled by contradictory claims. A majority of Japanese say nuclear power is no longer safe. But the government says the nation’s technology remains the world’s safest — or at least it will be, as the country studies the Fukushima disaster, in which three meltdowns forced the displacement of about 100,000 residents last spring.
The government’s stance also reinforces the powerful role of industrial heavyweights, particularly Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, whose technology can add billions to a sputtering economy. Though Japan has yet to conclude its official investigation into the Fukushima accident — a probe that will lead to new safety guidelines — those conglomerates are racing to finalize deals by highlighting the safety changes they’ve already made.
Only Toshiba and Hitachi had a hand in building the Fukushima reactors, but for all three manufacturers, the recent months have served as a gauge for global confidence in Japanese technology. Hitachi executives say they lost several deals in the wake of Fukushima. And Toshiba — along with its partner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — pulled out of the bidding for a deal in Turkey.
But the nuclear technology companies think that the setback will be modest, at most. Before the March 11 disaster, Hitachi had outlined a plan to construct 38 overseas plants by 2030. Because of the nuclear crisis, Hitachi nuclear power systems chief executive Masaharu Hanyu said, “we are now thinking that target might be a little bit delayed.” But the company has not formally lowered its target.
The Japanese companies have found that much of the world still wants nuclear power. Although Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear plants by 2022, and Italy recently voted against the construction of new reactors, Asian and Middle Eastern countries still have plans for major nuclear projects. China alone has about 25 reactors under construction.
“I really don’t think Fukushima poses a threat to our negotiations,” Hanyu said. “In terms of energy security and mitigating carbon emissions, there is still major demand.”
Within weeks of the crisis at Fukushima, Hitachi sent its executives across the globe to issue reassurances about pending deals. Hitachi in particular targeted Lithuania, which closed its last Soviet-style nuclear reactor in 2009. Since then, the country has been forced to import most of its power, and electricity prices have risen. Its government wanted a new 1,300-megawatt reactor, more powerful than the older model at Fukushima Daiichi but on par with modern standards.