Since March 11, 2011 and the nuclear scare at Fukushima, a growing number of Japanese began to oppose nuclear energy. Over a year later and this sentiment is not just lingering but increasing according to a recent poll done by the Pew Research Center. At the same time Japan is planning on reopening two of its nuclear reactors and activist groups are planning protests and demonstrations, a rare sight in Japanese politics.
Let’s be honest, it’s understandable why. After all, if this could happen in Fukushima, it could happen anywhere in Japan. Nuclear power is now a questionable energy source. Health and safety risks are too high. It caused so much panic, not just in Japan, that people in California were buying iodine pills to protect against possible radiation (which, ironically, if taken unnecessarily can lead to cancer).
While the Japanese government attempted to calm the people, and the prime minister naturally resigned, Japanese groups like Sayonara Genpatsu continued to protest nuclear power of any kind. The politicians certainly noticed a change in the normally apathetic electorate. Japanese citizens were demonstrating on the streets and collecting signatures. They were waking up.
So in early May, the national government finally did what the people wanted them to do (something you just don’t see so often in Japan). For the first time in decades they shut down all of their nuclear power plants. No more nuclear energy. That’s it! The end! The power of the people! The story of David and Golliath: a tragedy for big government and a victory for activism. Democracy finally prevailed in the country of the infamous iron triangle! Finally, after all Japan had been through, there was a positive story!
But this post is not aimed at celebrating Japanese activism or congratulating people for standing up and fighting for what is right. On the contrary, the purpose of this post is to say that the people are unfortunately wrong. This post is not advocating nuclear energy, but it will argue that until the Japanese government has a legitimate, secure energy plan for the future it should not abandon nuclear power.
Shut Down Shock
Before the earthquake roughly 25-30% of all electricity in Japan came from nuclear energy. Japan is no longer a country blessed with natural resources, and therefore nuclear energy was a very viable option. Not only was it a good way to secure its own energy, but such energy policy was more efficient (as nuclear reactors operate at an average utilization rate of 80 to 90 percent, whereas natural gas and alternative energy sources run in the range of 15-35%). As well, by decreasing energy imports, Japan could maintain its export-based economy with a trade surplus.
Japan is no longer a country blessed with natural resources, and therefore nuclear energy was a very viable option. Not only was it a good way to secure its own energy, but such energy policy was more efficient
At that time, the government was proposing to use more nuclear instead of less. Again, the logic was sound. Japan is a country that is politically concerned about the environment and the effects of global warming and they were pursuing options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. Originally they had planned for nuclear power to meet half of all its energy needs.
Then disaster struck. For a variety of reasons—routine safety checks, the Fukushima Incident, and popular dissent—the government reduced its nuclear energy use and issued a public campaign based on 節電 (saving energy).
Just as the Lehman Shock affected Japan, so too has the shut down. In the past year to make up for the energy lost usually provided by nuclear energy, the Japanese, already the world’s largest importer of natural gas, increased imports 25% while gas imports went up 85%. For the first time in over thirty years Japan fell into a trade deficit. Simultaneously, their green dream also took a hit as they began increasing, not decreasing, greenhouse gas emissions. As well, since oil and gas is foreign, and since it is not as efficient as nuclear power plants, imports are estimated to have cost Japan over $35 billion dollars directly. If this trend continues, the costs are expected only to go up. Perhaps Japan will spend up to ¥4.6 trillion (or $57.5 billion) on energy they could potentially provide themselves. Last, but certainly not least, this affects costs to consumers. As we prepare for the hot months of summer, using an air conditioner may be less affordable than chilling, so to speak, at a local café.
In other words, the immediate and sudden withdrawal of nuclear from Japan’s energy plan: (1) increases costs to a government whose current debt is approaching 200% of GDP (2) increases costs to businesses and risks jobs (3) increases fossil fuel emissions and (4) increases costs to consumers.
We’re Safe Now, Everything’s Fine?
Okay, you say, but I’m concerned about my safety and the safety of others. Yes, there are economic drawbacks, but I’d rather experience hard economic times in a perpetually stagnating economy and contribute to global warming than experience a nuclear meltdown. It’s simple. I’m a realist. You are nothing without security.
Again, while the fears of nuclear reactors are legitimate—this is not a blog advocating the superiority of nuclear to all other energy forms—the current public attitude is not so dissimilar to that of the red scare or general fear mongering. The odds of a natural disaster affecting a nuclear reactor in the same or similar manner as Fukushima’s plant are very, very small. And, to be honest, the odds have diminished since the Fukushima Incident. If the government is to reopen nuclear power plants, thanks to Fukushima they will be extraordinarily careful in selecting locations, staff, and regulations. After all, they are well aware that if they aren’t perhaps overzealously careful, heads will roll.
The time to actually be concerned about nuclear energy management was before the Fukushima Incident. Since the disaster happened it is actually less likely to happen again. Conversely, because people experienced it happening once, the public thinks the opposite. This appears to be a fairly common phenomenon following disasters in general, (ex. reaction to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Domino Theory to the threat of communism.)
What I am alternatively suggesting is given all of the negative effects of relying on oil and natural gas imports, the government should not abandon nuclear until it has an effective energy policy. In other words, unless every single reactor is sitting on a devastating fault line and not being regulated, then the transition should be measured and not made hastily. This is the best of both worlds: safe and cheap.
Simply put, there is less to fear now than there was before March 11th.
Popular Opinion and the Age of Innocence
In early June, just a month after the historical decision to shut off all of the nuclear reactors, Prime Minister Noda began to make the case to restart at least two nuclear reactors in Japan. It was as though Japan was in a dream for a month before waking up to realize, wait, those numbers just don’t work. We can’t just abandon nuclear energy. Whoops!
This decision, however, and the campaign to open up the Ohi reactors have come at increasing opposition towards the central government, and to be honest I am surprised that the Mit Romney-esque flip-flopping of Mr. Noda’s government has not forced him to resign. Protests and demonstrations, some unreported by the media, have continued throughout Japan, and more than 70% of the public thinks that the decision to start up the Ohi reactors is too hasty. Again, Mr. Noda, like your predecessors, your resignation please!
Despite all the political and economic realities facing Japan, the Japanese people are extraordinarily optimistic. Anecdotally, most Japanese have explained to me that nuclear energy is dangerous and Japan simply doesn’t have to have nuclear. They are well aware of the negative impacts of fossil fuels, but instead view this as an opportunity for Japan to switch to alternative energy sources like wind and solar to compensate for the 30% of electric power previously provided by nuclear reactors.
I have talked to only one Japanese person who thinks shutting down reactors nationwide is a bad decision, and that is because his May energy bill tripled after the shutdown. For the most part the Japanese are resolute, green, and optimistic. Where I see problems, they see opportunities. Where I am critical, they are hopeful.
But they are also extraordinarily naive. Japan currently gets about 10% of its energy from renewable sources (and that’s with relatively environmentally friendly policies) which would mean that to compensate for shutting down the nuclear reactors in the next year or two they would have to increase their green energy sources to 40% of all energy. This is economically and practically unfeasible. First of all, currently green technology has a utilization rate of approximately 15-30% from wind and solar (even lower than liquid natural gas), compared to a 80-90% utilization rate of nuclear energy. It is not cheap. But more importantly, Japan is a small archipelago that generates an enormous amount of electricity. To my understanding, it simply does not have the wind fields of Alaska or Texas, or the sun of Morocco to fix its problems. Renewable energy is great, and it makes good rhetoric, but its potential varies geographically. There is a reason why a country like Japan, so concerned with global warming, does not already generate a large chunk of its energy by renewable sources.
Presented with these realities, the Japanese I spoke with are no less determined. The yes-we-can spirit with which they believe Japan can suddenly transform its energy policy to renewable sources is reminiscent of Communist era optimism: good intentions, but unfortunately impractical.
Japan: Do What You Always Do
While the Japanese government is justifiably seen as nothing but a collection of self-serving nepotistic politicians (i.e. as one Japanese told me “Japanese politics are crap”), they have a chance to do something right for Japan and the world. The bureaucrats and politicians have a chance to seriously change Japanese energy policy for the better, but its solution is nuanced and complicated and involves security, economics, and environmental concerns. In order to do this properly, they need time. Just as a good PhD thesis is not written over night, the same is true for pubic policy of this magnitude. Japan is about to go through major changes, let them do so taking into consideration all aspects of the complicated problem. This responsibility lies on the politicians (which I will admit are generally incompetent and self-serving) and, perhaps more importantly, the komuin class/experienced government employees. So the politicians and bureaucrats must wake up to the realities of the new era of Japan, and stop being so populist (this is not a High School Prom King election).
To the people out there, I understand why you are skeptical. If you do not protest, perhaps nothing will change. But, it is worth a shot. Don’t ruin this opportunity by protesting all nuclear energy. While I am honestly moved that Japanese people are finally stepping up to their absurdly incompetent government, now is not the time to force the government’s hand. The government is already aware of your concerns, but it needs to come up with a long-term solution to this problem, not a short term one. Now is not the time to abandon all nuclear power. While I am reluctantly agreeing with Mr. Noda, abandoning nuclear energy right now is irresponsible. Japan needs time. Do what you do best. People, take a rest, not action.
Photos by: rhythm sift via Flickr Creative Commons