Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fukushima Monogatari: The Ongoing Saga of Reopening Japan’s Nuclear Plants

Predicting when Japan will reopen its nuclear facilities might make for a good office pool, but bad for energy policy. The government of Shinzo Abe wants to get it done but understandably wants all the t’s crossed:

Japan will continue to rely on nuclear power as a central part of its energy policy under a draft government plan, effectively overturning a pledge by a previous administration to phase out all nuclear plants.

That’s actually news, though it feels we’ve been in this room before.

The proposed plan does get the basics right on the benefits of nuclear energy:

[The proposal] says that "nuclear power is an important baseload electricity source," meaning that nuclear plants would remain at the core of power production along with coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants.

Officials said nuclear energy remained an important way to reduce Japan's imports of fuel from the Middle East and limit carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. Abe has also described nuclear power as vital to keeping Japanese industry competitive.

And the story, by the Wall Street Journal’s Mari Iwata is smart to point out that waiting breeds uncertainty, which in itself can cause economic distress:

However, in an indication of the uncertainty created by cautious public opinion, the plan didn't specify how much of Japan's future power should come from nuclear plants. "It was impossible to plan any energy mix, as it's been unclear how many reactors can come back online," Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.

We’re not idiots about this: if Japan decided to close all its nuclear plants after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, as first seemed likely, we might wonder how the country would proceed but could not argue against it as a decision. Japan took a dreadful blow after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 people and Fukushima Daiichi and nuclear energy could be seen to symbolize that – even if no one died due to radiation release, it was all undeniably harrowing. Japan, like all countries, has a right to determine its energy mix for any reason it chooses, however much we might consider shuttering nuclear to be short sighted. That’s just how it is.

The Japanese government has clearly decided to move forward, but equally clearly it wants to pry nuclear energy loose from symbolism and return it to its existential nature as a high performing electricity generator and climate change mitigator.

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South African writer Leon Louw looks at this reality vs. symbolism divide in a provocative column that you can read at the BDLive site. I’m a little uncomfortable with it because it is premised on the idea that “Fukushima provided what amounts to a controlled experiment.” That’s an unfortunate way of looking at a situation – the earthquake and tsunami - that included so many fatalities. The accident contributed to the overall chaos of that period but it’s impact needs to be sorted from that of the natural disasters. In any event, some experiments are better left in the lab. Still, that’s the point – the events are joined together and one has been allowed to inform the other. Honestly, Louw is more than aware of rhetorical overkill used during the accident by anti-nuclear advocates.

The World Health Organization’s "comprehensive" risk assessment concluded that there were and will be zero nuclear-related deaths and "there would most likely be no observable increase in cancer". The "risk for certain types of cancers increased slightly among (a few) children exposed to the highest doses of radioactivity".

The contrarian view, articulated by physicist Michio Kaku, is that it is a "ticking time bomb". Others say the US west coast "is being fried by radiation" from Fukushima, and that it is "the ultimate catastrophe" or "the end of humanity".

I’d say Kaku’s ludicrous views only work in the heat of the moment (with highly susceptible cable news hosts) and his lack of credibility exposes itself fairly quickly. But the odor lingers and Louw gets at that.

So we’ll see. Japan is edging ever closer to turning on a number of its nuclear facilities – and it should. Unquestionably so. But Fukushima and nuclear energy now carries a lot of baggage unrelated to it and that’s something that we cannot underestimate, or even reasonably criticize, in Japan’s calculation.

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Monogatari is a Japanese literary form similar to the epic. Foreign books translated to Japanese sometimes have Monogatari appended to their title to indicate their nature – The Lord of the Rings, for example, is Yubiwa Monogatari. (I’m not sure what yubiwa means – perhaps ring.)

1 comment:

jimwg said...

Re: "...Japan, like all countries, has a right to determine its energy mix for any reason it chooses..."

Not to sound dictatorial about it, but if fossil contributions on climate change is going to be seriously addressed, this national sovereignty over energy type use attitude would have to radically change out of necessity.

James Greenidge
Queens NY