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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.
This story aired on March 11, 2014.
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