Skip to main content

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.

---

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.

---

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.)

Comments

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

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…

Innovation Fuels the Nuclear Legacy: Southern Nuclear Employees Share Their Stories

Blake Bolt and Sharimar Colon are excited about nuclear energy. Each works at Southern Nuclear Co. and sees firsthand how their ingenuity powers the nation’s largest supply of clean energy. For Powered by Our People, they shared their stories of advocacy, innovation in the workplace and efforts to promote efficiency. Their passion for nuclear energy casts a bright future for the industry.

Blake Bolt has worked in the nuclear industry for six years and is currently the work week manager at Hatch Nuclear Plant in Georgia. He takes pride in an industry he might one day pass on to his children.

What is your job and why do you enjoy doing it?
As a Work Week Manager at Plant Hatch, my primary responsibility is to ensure nuclear safety and manage the risk associated with work by planning, scheduling, preparing and executing work to maximize the availability and reliability of station equipment and systems. I love my job because it enables me to work directly with every department on the plant…