The weekend read: Sunshine for Fukushima

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The wispy cloud cover that blanketed Tokyo as our train departed Ueno station in the early hours of a crisp March morning had burned away by the time it pulled into Tatsuta station, 2.5 hours and 240 km to the north east. Early March in northern Japan can often be warm, bright and sunny. And while it was a chilly morning, the sun warmed our backs as we alighted on to the eerily empty platform.

It was an altogether wetter, duller day almost exactly seven years prior, when on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck some 70 km off the coast of Iwate Prefecture, just north of Tatsuta station, which sits in the heart of the rather-more infamous Fukushima Prefecture.

The earthquake was the fourth biggest ever recorded on the planet, and was so powerful that it dragged Honshu – the main island of Japan – 2.4 meters closer to North America, and shifted the earth on its axis by 25 cm, thus shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds.

Tatsuta Station is just a few miles from the Infini Group facility.

Tremors were reported to last for several minutes up and down the east coast of the island, with videos on YouTube showing pedestrians in downtown Tokyo cowering with fear as buildings shook overhead. Something far more devastating was lurking out at sea, however. As the Pacific Plate subducted under the Honshu Plate, the resultant release of kinetic energy propelled a massive tsunami (which means ‘Harbor Wave’ in Japanese) at speed towards Japan’s exposed eastern coast. Dramatic video footage taken from news helicopters scrambled to shore in the aftermath of the tremors capture the wall of water rushing towards the coastline.

It’s a surreal sight. There is nothing ‘Hollywood’ about a tsunami; it is not really a wave in the truest sense, but rather a sustained surge of high water. It took around 20 minutes for the tsunami to hit the town of Naraha, which is served by Tatsuta station. By that time, many inhabitants had been able to scramble to higher ground, but the onrushing water still claimed the lives of hundreds, while sweeping away the homes, vehicles and businesses of much of the town.

Across the eastern coast of Japan, the surge reached inland as far as 10 km as waves as high as 39 meters destroyed everything in their path. But things were about to get even worse. As the soup of debris, mud and water swirled around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, 60 km north of Naraha, three reactors went into Level 7 meltdown as the tsunami waters disabled the emergency generators designed to provide power to the pumps that cool the reactors. Radioactive material was released into the atmosphere over the next three days, triggering a mass evacuation of the surrounding area.

As brave workers donned protective suits and rushed to the site of the unfolding disaster, hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians were dispatched to temporary shelter and accommodation across Japan.

Many would not be able to return home for more than four years.

Building trust, hope, and solar
Driving around Naraha today, there are few reminders of the devastation the town suffered. Empty plots where homes and communities once stood appear, to fresh eyes at least, like overgrown paddy fields or former football pitches awaiting development. There are, though, far more empty plots than housing developments, although that balance is slowly changing. Residents of the town were only permitted to move back on September 4, 2015. But even since then, the population has remained stubbornly low despite government incentives and encouragement.

New sea defences are still being built at Naraha, where the tsunami swept inland.

Every city office across Fukushima displays a daily radiation reading, and according to my guide, Sayaka Masuda of Japanese solar firm Infini Group, the readings are well within acceptable safety levels. Despite this, there remains an unspoken fear of radiation poisoning among the general public. Enticing people back to Fukushima is going to be a long-term project, and one that will require patience, reassurance, and, of course, employment opportunities.

A few miles from the train station, down tight winding roads partly reclaimed by the local fauna after four years of human inactivity, sits a sparking new solar module production facility built and owned by Infini Group. The 120 MW fab was completed in July last year, and currently employs 80 full time staff.

On the empty plot of land next to the fab, tractors and rollers are busy preparing the ground for an additional factory on land bought by another company, Tsutomu Hakozaki, the Infini Group’s fab’s head of IT, tells me. “We were the first company to build a factory here since the tsunami, and now it is encouraging that other companies are beginning to follow suit.” New shops and new homes have also sprung up since construction work began on the fab in 2016, and Hakozaki is hopeful that Infini Group’s presence can act as an anchor to help rebuild the torn social tissue of the region.

Tsutomu Hakozaki discusses the solar modules produced onsite at the facility.

Hakozaki has worked in Fukushima all his life, and is happy to now be working in the renewable energy sector. “Nobody is frightened of solar power, that’s for sure!”, he says with a wide grin as we survey the factory floor.

Infini Group hopes to expand module capacity to 300 MW in due course, but company COO Naoto Kotera tells me that they currently only have the manpower to operate for around eight hours a day. “We took the decision to construct this factory in order to rebuild the region and improve the lives of the locals. Our intention was to employ only people from Fukushima,” Kotera reveals, “this was the agreement with government; they let us build there, and so our desire is to prioritize the employment of people exclusively from there.” The reality has proven tougher. “Many people who left are simply reluctant to return,” he says. However, with 80 staff already, Infini Group’s growth in a short space of time has been impressive.

Nobody is frightened of solar power, that’s for sure!

Despite these recruitment difficulties, the highly automated fab appears to be operating smoothly, assembling both monocrystalline and multicrystalline modules. The latest NINJA product is a high efficiency module that is subjected to two visual tests on the line. Kotera sees Japan’s growing residential market as the perfect fit for these high power products. There are also plans to produce residential-size lithium-ion batteries at the facility, beginning later this year. “The capacity will be 1,000 batteries a day, which we will bundle with our modules and an Energy Management System and supply directly to mid-sized housebuilders in Japan,” Kotera says.

The sparkling new fab is highly automated and can be extended to 300 MW capacity.

Reaching its potential
The ‘Made in Japan’ seal of quality is well-respected the world over. But within Japan, ‘Made in Fukushima’ is the mark of approval discerning consumers have always looked for, says Kotera. “People from Fukushima are particularly proud of their work. They have incredible attention to detail. The region is famed for its high standards, and having suffered such trauma, the determination among the locals to show the world that they can produce something good is stronger than ever.”

There can be no denying that Fukushima has entered into the global lexicon, sharing unwanted company with that other byword for the perils of nuclear power: Chernobyl. Meeting the plant’s production manager Satoru Kusama – born and raised in Fukushima – I am cautious not to appear too morbidly curious in my line of questioning. Did he experience the tsunami? Where was he working at the time? What is his tale of escape and survival? Questions I want to ask, but the words do not come. Instead, I ask about his hopes for the future.

Satoru Kusama explains his work at the Infini Group module facility.

Each weekend, Kusama tells me how his friends gather at his favorite restaurant to ask about his work, and Fukushima in general. “I tell them that it is now completely safe. I have this strong urge to get that message out.”

Does he trust the official radiation readings offered by city government, I ask him? He grins. “Yes. Because we are also provided with an independent reading by an NGO, and their readings are broadly similar, so that’s reassuring.” Kusama recently took a radiation reading for himself, a year since his last one. His levels are well within the regulation, he says. I press on. “Does this give you some sense of security and faith? And do your friends believe you?” I inquire.

He smiles once again. “I understand the preoccupation with Fukushima. With my life and work. The name is now famous around the world. I see it as my duty to show people that you can safely live and work here.”

While the solar fab is still actively growing its staff, albeit slowly, the devastated nuclear power plant 60 km to the north is facing altogether tougher struggles. Many employees are still required to clean, stabilize and secure the plant, but finding willing pairs of hands is proving troublesome, our driver tells me as we head back to the station. “After all, who wants to enter an industry that is not only dangerous, but has no future in Japan? Solar is the future, that’s for sure,” he states, rather matter-of-factly. One cannot help but believe him.

Don’t miss the April issue of pv magazine, which features a report from the recent PV Expo in Tokyo, Japan.