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     Sep 23, 2011

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Tsunami clears way for solar-powered Japan
By Masayoshi Son

This article by Softbank chief executive Son Masayoshi outlines the thinking of one of Japan's most innovative capitalists and public-spirited citizens. Having helped create a competitive market in telecommunications, Son is seeking to liberate and "green" Japan's 16 trillion yen electricity industry. He inaugurated his Japan Renewable Energy Foundation on September 12. The foundation, to be led by Tomas Kaberger, the former director general of the Swedish Energy Agency, includes a cast of international experts on renewable energy, associated support policies (especially the feed in tariff), and other aspects of the energy revolution. Without Son putting renewable energy so squarely and credibly on the public agenda, Japan might have succumbed to the enormous pressure from business lobby, government and nuclear power operator TEPCO to maintain the unsustainable status quo.- Andrew DeWit. [1]

I was shocked by the Great East Japan Earthquake. These days I

carry a Geiger counter wherever I go, and I was surprised when I went to the Kansai area [southwest of Tokyo] last week and the device registered double digits like I had seen in Tokyo. Radiation now spreads beyond Tohoku and Kanto to the west as well.

One thing that I, as an operator of a cell-phone business, was reminded from this earthquake and tsunami is that although cell phones are wireless, stations are wired with optical fiber cables, and when these are broken or power fails, cell phones do not work at all. When we lose electricity and the network is crippled, cell phones are completely out of service.

Softbank phones also lacked sufficient functioning for receiving earthquake early warnings, so I have decided to equip nearly every phone in the future with this function.

In terms of recovery support, we are preparing to establish a foundation to aid and support disaster-hit areas, in hopes of bringing together the goodwill of the entire nation.

While I was wondering if there is anything I could do as an individual citizen in fields that do not necessarily have direct relation with my primary business, I launched a portal site specializing in recovery assistance in an effort to create a system that collaborates with local autonomies and non-profit organizations (NPOs).

The site joins forces with volunteers to develop tools to manage insufficient supplies to eliminate the imbalance of accumulated supplies not reaching those who truly need them, or a system that allows individual supporters to support individual evacuees in ways such as a certain volunteer visiting a certain evacuation camp to report on what supplies are needed. The site also provides information on evacuee reception, evacuation camps, NPOs and donations. The site is being accessed two million times a day, or 60 million a month, and that has made me feel the enormous demand for this service.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake occurred in 1995, which was when Yahoo! launched and the Internet was in its early stages. Cell phones had only spread to about 10% of the population and the ability to access the Internet from them was very limited. I had not yet entered the cell-phone business and in a sense considered it none of my business. But seeing cell-phone networks fail before my very eyes this time around, I was deeply shocked. Lives may have been saved had cell phones worked.

And looking at questionnaires filled out at disaster-hit areas, I found that many people wanted cell phones to work, more than they wanted food or anything else. This made me again think of my responsibility and my powerless was indescribably frustrating.
So I resolved that Softbank will offer earthquake orphans free cell-phone service until they turn 18 years old; all disaster-hit areas and evacuation camps will be given free public iPads; and I personally will donate 10 billion yen (US$130 million) together with my executive pay.

How should we counter international misinformation and its effects?

I personally visited an evacuation camp in Fukushima. A high level of caesium 137, six times that found in evacuated areas around the Chernobyl plant, was detected from soil in Lidate Village, and radioactive contamination was going to remain for a long time. Fukushima evacuees are suffering severe anxiety.

I conducted a questionnaire from my Twitter account on the government policy concerning voluntary evacuation within the 20-30 kilometer radius, and 85% responded that the policy is too vague and indecisive regarding what people should do. When left to decide for themselves, and if elderly people living alone or bedridden patients cannot evacuate, those who support them with food, gas and other provisions would have to remain as well. This would increase the number of victims.

Mistaken information about radiation and its effects has spread not only throughout the nation but overseas as well. The trend of avoiding Japanese products is seen not only with vegetables and other food but with industrial goods as well. To eradicate such damage from misinformation, we must announce our figures measured under the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) standard together with the global International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standard. No matter how well thought out the Japanese original standard may be, the world will not accept it.

For example, the IAEA standard for soil surveys samples a one-square-meter layer of soil one to three centimeters below the surface and measures becquerels per square meter. But the Japanese standard samples soil five centimeters from the surface and measures becquerels per kilogram. Dust and particles carry and spread radioactive elements, which take time to penetrate five centimeters into the soil. Foreign nations, at least, see that the Japanese method would yield lower figures, and doubts spread that Japanese figures might possibly be lower than the actual state.

Something else also concerns me. On April 6, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued an official notice requesting "relevant ministries and agencies to collaborate against comments and information on the Internet that violate laws or public order, asking website operators to voluntarily delete them and taking appropriate action against such operators," which was also posted on its website.

This is an extremely dangerous idea that could lead to repression of free speech. We know very well having seen revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern regions how governments that repress free speech on the Internet end up.

I understand that the government has no intention of controlling the Internet, but I sincerely hope it will be extremely careful on this issue. Some foreign nations are already commenting that they hope to see nothing resembling speech repression in advanced and democratic Japan. I offer my strong warning for the sake of Japan's trust.

Telecommunications cannot work without electricity, and nuclear power plants are dangerous, but electricity in Japan will not come without nuclear power plants. At least this is what I had thought. I did some research on this and learned quite a few things.

In responding to the nuclear plant incident, [now former] prime minister Naota Kan has already made his stand clear on three points: We need to reevaluate the conventional safety standards (on existing nuclear power plants); we need to evaluate (plans for building new plants) from scratch and we will pursue safety in nuclear power while we work proactively toward clean energy. I am in favor of these ideas. I wish to offer some specific suggestions to push them further.

As we are well aware, Japan's power production is comprised of 30% nuclear energy, 9% hydropower and other natural energy and 61% thermal energy. People panicked that if we lose nuclear plants we would lack electricity and the Kanto area [around Greater Tokyo] would have to undergo rolling blackouts. But arguments that began several days ago are saying that we could probably get along without nuclear power by increasing thermal power.

How long does a nuclear power plant last anyway? A reactor pressure vessel deteriorates as neutrons continue bouncing against it, and becomes more fragile against earthquakes and rising temperatures. When we look at the lifespan of nuclear power plants around the world until shutdown, we find that the average is 22 years. I was very surprised that few in the world remain in operation beyond 40 years.

Just because nuclear power plants are dangerous, we realistically cannot stop them today at this very instant. But if we intentionally halted nuclear plants when they reached a 40-year lifespan, the power they produced would naturally decline unless we constructed new ones.

Until a month ago, I had believed that nuclear power was the global trend and that nations around the world are building more nuclear power plants in order to reduce carbon dioxide. But the nuclear power plant boom was actually in the mid-1980s (Figure 1). Hardly any new nuclear plants were built after this period. This amazed me. 

If we were to maintain the current level of electrical power provided by nuclear plants, we would have to build so many of them again, as we did in the 1980s when production peaked. But having experienced the Fukushima events, would the world welcome a move toward constructing new nuclear power plants when we have so few of them now? I think we the people need to discuss this issue again.

Either way, as the prime minister says, we must raise operation safety standards of existing nuclear power plants. Some of my suggestions are:
1. Principally halt all reactors whose lives have expired;
2. Prohibit exchange of executives/officials among the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Nuclear Safety Commission, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA) and the power companies;
3. Toughen safety assessments concerning cracks and other abnormalities;
4. Safely disclose information on abnormalities;
5. Release IAEA international standard figures together with Japanese figures, and 6. Reevaluate operation of plants in areas of heightened earthquake risk.

Are nuclear power plants actually cheap while natural energy is expensive?

From the standpoint of practical, economical logic, solar power and natural energy are expensive. I had always believed that nuclear power was the most inexpensive way of producing power, at five to six yen per kilowatt-hour; therefore we have to use nuclear power and construct new plants. I am sure that many people thought the same. 

Continued 1 2  

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 21, 2011)


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