Triple disaster proves need for an industrial revolution

by Shinji Fukukawa

Some three months since the colossal earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan, stricken areas are getting on track for recovery with local industrial production capacity having been restored to as much as 90 percent of pre-disaster levels.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has announced plans to ensure stable cooling of reactors in its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant within six to nine months. But the situation does not warrant optimism due to various unpredictable difficulties.

Amid the international community’s deepening concern about nuclear power safety, the Group of Eight leaders held a summit in Deauville, France, in late May, and asked all countries operating nuclear power facilities, including emerging nations, to use relevant guidelines issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The triple calamity of a massive quake, tsunami and a nuclear power plant crisis inflicted enormous damage along the northeastern coast of Japan, while providing a number of precious lessons. The foremost lesson is that the disasters have brought home to us the urgent need to make changes in our industrial civilization.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century rested on the premise that Earth’s resources and nature’s recycling capability are everlasting. Critics point out that this premise has begun to break up. The unprecedented East Japan calamity has aptly proved their opinions correct.

The world’s energy demand is increasing drastically due to sharp population growth as well as brisk economic development of emerging nations. The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, estimates that global energy demand will grow about 50 percent through 2035. Oil prices persistently rise even as the world’s oil resources have passed their peak and begun to wane. Meanwhile, political unrest persists in some major oil-producing countries.

China, India and other emerging countries, whose demand for oil will rise sharply in the future, are scrambling hard to ensure ample supplies while the resource majors are endeavoring to strengthen their control over resource development and trading.

Over time, major consumer countries have stepped up their reliance on nuclear power to meet their rising energy demand and plan to continue to do so. For example, current rates of reliance on nuclear power are 29 percent for Japan, 20 percent for the United States, 75 percent for France and 26 percent for Germany. China is planning to increase its reliance rate drastically in years to come.

Another key factor behind the tendency for heavier reliance on nuclear power is the problem of global warming. Heat waves, torrential rains, floods and tornadoes have killed and displaced large numbers of people in the U.S., Europe, Russia and China year after year. In Africa, there have been reports of lakes shrinking and disappearing, one after another. As a result, many countries now pin their hopes on the use of nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gases.

The Fukushima disaster, however, has badly harmed public trust in nuclear power technology and given rise to widespread fear of radiation.

Now the circumstances no longer permit us to maintain our traditional industrial system based on mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal, which rely on assumptions that usable resources and energy are limitless. We need to reform our industrial structure in a way that enhances the value of products and services and that reduces the load on energy resources and the natural environment. That means we should become more strongly oriented toward improving efficiency in production and consumption, and in the recycling of industrial resources.

People’s needs have greatly changed in recent years as they tend to seek fulfillment from human values rather than from material affluence alone. This tendency is widely expected to help improve quality-of-life functions and raise the level of human interactions.

People are attaching more and more importance to values such as culture, sophistication, medical treatment, nursing care, the natural environment, safety and security. Highly advanced technology is capable of upgrading the added values of these categories.

At the same time, we should mobilize our knowledge and skills to use energy efficiently and expand the use of green energy. While improving production processes drastically, we need to exert our best efforts to develop next-generation cars — hybrid, electric and fuel battery — introduce highly efficient battery recharging systems, popularize LED and other energy-saving products, and introduce advanced systems such as the Home Energy Management System and the Building and Energy Management System.

Another project worth addressing is the development of green-conscious smart communities that control demand and supply in a comprehensive manner.

Germany has decided to abolish its nuclear power program by 2022 while the U.S., Britain, France and China plan to continue their nuclear power programs.

In view of the world’s overall demand for and supply of energy, it seems practically impossible to eliminate the reliance on nuclear energy completely. Therefore, it is necessary to absolutely ensure an optimum mix of safety and efficiency in nuclear power generation.

From May 24 an IAEA team of experts investigated the Fukushima nuclear accidents and delivered a preliminary report to the Japanese government; release of a final report is set for an IAEA meeting later this month. Japan should thoroughly study the causes of the accidents, examine relevant remedial measures and then share its conclusions at a global level in order to help guarantee the safety of nuclear power generation.

The technology concerning nuclear power safety has become precious international public goods, requiring comprehensive scientific and technical reviews of developments.

Our industrial civilization should be aimed at promoting the recycling of resources, an orientation toward nature, public safety and the enrichment of human values.

The latest leading-edge information technology should give us intellectual tools that will make achievement of these goals possible.

With this in mind, we Japanese should work hard to overcome our current national crisis and pave the way for a new industrial revolution. In this way we will respond to the expectations of the international community.

Shinji Fukukawa, former vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is now chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.