After 2011 Disaster, Fukushima Embraced Solar Power. The Rest Of Japan Has Not After the nuclear catastrophe, the nation's investment in renewable energy soared. Many of those affected in Fukushima started production. But Japan is pushing fossil fuels, causing climate concerns.

After 2011 Disaster, Fukushima Embraced Solar Power. The Rest Of Japan Has Not

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Before the earthquake, before the tsunami and the nuclear disaster, Japan got nearly a third of its energy from nuclear power. But after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the country took all of its nuclear reactors offline, which has led Japan to increasingly rely on fossil fuels and also solar power. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf continues our series on recovery in Fukushima.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Chiyomi Endo is saying a final goodbye to the home she once shared with her husband and three kids in Fukushima. It's less than a mile from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant where three reactors overheated and exploded in 2011. They left fast, only taking what they could carry. There are things left nearly exactly as they were the day everything changed. Two coffee cups sit on the kitchen table. Her daughter's old school uniform is laid out on a bed. A calendar on the wall is still flipped to March 2011.

CHIYOMI ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "This is sad," she says. "This house is still nice, but we can't come back." She looks around.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) My life is so different now. We had to start from nothing, even less than nothing, and totally reinvent ourselves after the disaster.

LONSDORF: She's here to give the keys to government officials. This house will be bulldozed soon and the land used as part of a storage site for radioactive topsoil scraped from the earth in the massive cleanup effort. Chiyomi heads upstairs...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LONSDORF: ...And takes one last look at the bedroom she used to share with her husband, Hiroyuki.

ENDO: (Vocalizing).

LONSDORF: He died a few years ago - suddenly. And then she walks back down to hand over the keys.

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: The whole thing is pretty unceremonious, though. In reality, Chiyomi says she said goodbye to this part of her life right after the disaster, when her family piled into a car and drove as far south as they could go to the southern tip of Japan on the island of Kyushu.

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

KEIJI: (Speaking Japanese).

ENDO: (Laughter).

KEIJI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Here, she's a single mom to her bubbly 10-year-old son, Keiji, who was just a baby when the disaster happened. He doesn't remember Fukushima at all. Her other two children are grown and live nearby. And Chiyomi has found herself with an unlikely job, running a small solar farm...

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...On a big hill overlooking the tropical landscape.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) I never imagined my life would be like this. When we first moved here, I was in my late 30s. My husband was in his 40s. We were like, OK, do we get new jobs? So we decided to do this. We saw it as an investment for the future.

LONSDORF: Her husband worked at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant for over 20 years. And for him, the switch to solar was purposeful. He felt that nuclear power had betrayed him.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) He grew up really believing nuclear power was safe. And then he lost his home to it.

LONSDORF: Today, the energy collected by these panels has allowed her to build a new life. The power is sold to the local utility company and brings in thousands of dollars a month. When her husband died suddenly a few years ago, Chiyomi took over the work. And the family placed his grave in the center of the solar panels. Chiyomi walks over to a tall, black, marble stone...

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...With an inscription that says...

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...Essentially, remember that this family is here because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: A message to future generations, she explains.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) My biggest which is for renewable energy to take over. I mean, look at my old home. It's going to be a storage site for nuclear waste. We can't deal with that kind of waste in forever.

LONSDORF: Chiyomi's wish might not come true, though. Her family started their business at the right time.

TETSUNARI IIDA: The price was so generous and also the regulations were so loose, so anyone can register.

LONSDORF: Tetsunari Iida is the executive director of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo. He says in the early years after the disaster, Japan pushed renewables to help fill the energy gap left after 54 nuclear reactors were taken offline. The government offered big incentives to new investors. Lots of people, like Chiyomi and her husband, jumped on board to build smaller operations, and corporations rushed in to build massive solar and wind farms. But...

IIDA: Afterwards, the regulation was more strict.

LONSDORF: Compensation dropped. It got increasingly harder for alternative energy producers to connect into the power grid. Iida says this was partly due to the big utility companies trying to maintain control and the government allowing it to happen.

IIDA: They're setting kind of a barrier to - not to rapid increase anymore.

JENNIFER SKLAREW: The institutions make a big difference.

LONSDORF: That's Jennifer Sklarew of George Mason University. She studies energy policy in Japan. And she says there is technology and interest for renewables in Japan, but the bigger power companies and government need to commit.

SKLAREW: If the people in place do not want to implement policies to empower the economics and the technology innovation, then it can't happen, regardless of how advanced those technologies are and regardless of how good the economics look.

LONSDORF: Many of the major utilities, as well as the Japanese government, are still waiting to see if nuclear power can make a comeback. And renewables just aren't that reliable yet. So in the meantime...

SKLAREW: I would assume the default's going to be import gas, import coal.

LONSDORF: Iida agrees.

IIDA: It's the most realistic and not so optimistic future.

LONSDORF: But one place in Japan that is optimistic about renewables - Fukushima. The local government here has set a goal for the entire prefecture, the third-largest in Japan, to be completely fueled by renewable energy by 2040. It's a real turnaround for a place where nuclear power ruled only a decade ago. Especially in the former exclusion zone near Daiichi, there are solar panels everywhere, from small ones on roofs and hillsides to massive mega-farms along highways, making use of the land available after the disaster. Some of these panels are run by big developers, and others are not...

Konnichiwa.

SHIGEYUKI KONNO: Konnichiwa.

LONSDORF: ...Like the solar panels on farmer Shigeyuki Konno's fields. He's 74 years old, and this land has been in his family for generations. He gestures around at it.

KONNO: (Through interpreter) This is all my land, but it's nonsense (laughter).

LONSDORF: Nonsense because it's relatively useless. The wind carried radioactive material here after the disaster, and the government has scraped off all the topsoil in decontamination efforts. The farmers here can't really farm much anymore. So when a small local power company came and asked Shigeyuki if they could rent his land for solar panels, he said yes.

KONNO: (Through interpreter) I was really worried after the nuclear accident. How would we get power?

LONSDORF: Most of his neighbors also agreed. But that means everything is different now, he says. There were rice paddies all around here with tiny frogs that created a kind of soundtrack for his life. Now it's quiet. He misses the frogs a lot, he says. And he doesn't make nearly the same amount of money as he did farming. But Shigeyuki says he sees this as a necessary change. He has nine grandkids. They all live far away now, but they were just in town the other weekend for a visit, running through the fields.

KONNO: (Through interpreter) My grandparents farmed here, my parents, too. But now, it's time for change. I've realized it's a new season.

LONSDORF: This, he says looking out over the solar panels, is for future generations. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

PFEIFFER: Kat Lonsdorf is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. You can find all of her reporting with photos by NPR's Claire Harbage at npr.org/fukushima.

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