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Mr. Abe: Bag the nukes and heed the Keeling Curve

by Stephen Hesse

Dear Prime Minister Abe,

As you ride your recent wave of popularity, I know you are well aware that waves end, either in a crash or a fade. And you are luckier than most to have another chance since being elected as prime minister for the second time despite crashing out of the job in 2007 after serving for less than a year.

Today, at the peak of your ride before the summer Upper House election, you are making promises to everyone, from farmers and advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the business community and national universities.

But I can’t help wondering if you are really committed to providing Japan’s young people with a better future in the form of a safe and sustainable society they can be proud of.

Others will challenge your plans to jumpstart the economy, assume control of Japan’s backyard and amend the Constitution. My question is this: With all your talk of a beautiful, bright future, why are you still wedded to a backward-looking, business-as-usual nuclear-energy policy?

Economies rise and fall, and recover if we’re lucky. But a comprehensive plan for nationwide reform of energy generation, distribution — and efficient use — could ensure Japan a safe, sustainable, low-carbon future for decades.

Japan could be a world leader in the development of alternative energy sources and a showroom for cutting-edge technologies. This would strengthen and stabilize Japan’s fragile economy — something that so-called quantitative easing will not.

Dare to dream even bigger, and a comprehensive, non-nuclear, low-carbon energy plan could make the Abe name synonymous with reversal of the Keeling Curve (see later) — something that would truly be an Olympian legacy.

First, though, let’s be honest: Japan is no place for nuclear power. Elsewhere, perhaps, but not here, where “Shake, Rattle and Roll” ought to be the nation’s anthem.

Still, the three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the ongoing leakage there of radioactive cooling water have not been enough to convince you along with Japan’s so-called nuclear village that our young people deserve far better.

(See Jeff Kingston’s Counterpoint column in today’s Japan Times, where he defines the nuclear village as “nuclear advocates, and beneficiaries, in the utilities, regulatory agencies, the Diet [Japan's parliament], big business, the media and academia.”)

Nor do the active faults running near, and under, our “safe” reactors dent your denial, Mr. Abe, or lessen your commitment to a deadly, outdated status quo.

However averse you may be to the policies of your rivals, you could prove yourself a better man by endorsing the energy policies of your predecessors in the Democratic Party of Japan, who recognized the wisdom of a non-nuclear, low-carbon energy future.

You already have the business community on your side. Few, if any, will abandon you simply because you choose to pursue a sustainable long-term energy vision that is non-nuclear and low-carbon.

In the end they will thank you for creating a new domestic industry that will rival Japan’s global success with automobiles.

In fact, your insistence on nuclear energy, even as common sense and new technologies point in the opposite direction, leaves many of us wondering what plans you have for the nuclear-power industry.

Are you committed to keeping Japan free of nuclear weapons? Or is this on the table, too, along with “reform” of the Constitution?

And if keeping the nuclear-weapons option alive is not the purpose, then can we assume that those who profit most from nuclear energy, Japan’s utilities, are pulling your strings regarding energy policy?

By choice or not, you are letting the nuclear village call the shots and they are controlling Japan’s energy future, which does not bode well for your legacy — nor for the future of Japan’s young people.

“Lobbying power belongs to people who’ve made money already. It represents the accumulated money and power of the last 50 years, not the next 50 years,” the renowned U.S. academic, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben noted in a recent interview with Kristine Wong on Greenbiz.com, speaking of the fossil-fuel industry in the United States.

“Fifty years from now, I have no doubt that the wind-industry lobby will be powerful, and perhaps obnoxious. Maybe it will be stepping on the neck of the tidal-power industry, or whatever else is coming next,” he added with characteristic humor.

McKibben is well known for having established 350.org, an organization dedicated to bringing carbon-dioxide emissions under control and stabilizing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million (ppm). Which brings us back to the Keeling Curve: If you are searching for a simple, easy-to-understand indicator of the pernicious character of our energy status quo, you need look no further.

In 1958, David Keeling (1928-2005), a U.S. climate scientist affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, set up a CO2 monitoring system at the Mauna Loa Observatory atop the 4,169-meter Hawaiian volcano of the same name. That system has now taken hourly readings of CO2 in the atmosphere for 55 years, creating an unimpeachable record of our planet’s changing atmospheric profile.

For many people, their first glimpse of the Keeling Curve was in Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” about former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming. For climate scientists, the graph has long been a haunting gauge of an inexorable climb in CO2 levels.

The line is jagged because each spring the trees in the northern hemisphere grow new leaves, which pull carbon from the air, creating a noticeable drop in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. In autumn, when those same trees drop their leaves, CO2 levels once again begin to rise.

Each year, however, CO2 spikes at levels slightly higher than in the year before. And this month, according to climate scientists, the Keeling Curve has hit a psychological red line because our planet’s atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have, in recent weeks, reached 400 ppm. — a level not seen for between 3 million and 5 million years.

For humans, this is totally unknown territory, as we have only been around for about 200,000 years.

And so it goes. Year by year, one saw tooth at a time we are driving the Keeling Curve steadily upward, at an angle of ascent that shows no hint of abating.

Which is why McKibben points out in his interview with Wong, “For the moment, we need everybody who’s at all concerned about climate change — the biggest problem facing the world — to make it their business. This, at this point, is everybody’s business. And it better be because the economic consequences of not doing anything about it are staggering, quite aside from the moral human consequences.”

In Japan, however, following two decades of failed efforts to jumpstart the economy with massive public-works spending, we are so eager for good news that the recent ersatz economic uptick — a bubble even more fragile than the last one that burst in the early 1990s, leading to Japan’s extended “lost decade” — has voters giddily in love with you, Mr. Abe.

Machinery orders are up, the yen is down, gross domestic product has hit an annualized rate of 3.5 percent, the Nikkei stock-market index is higher than it’s been in five years. … Finally, surely, happy days are here again.

A closer look, though, shows that all is not well in Brave New Japan. There is fear of the government bond market crashing, the costs of daily necessities are climbing while salaries are not, and Japan and its neighbors have not been this bellicose in years.

For me, the greater concern is that the nuclear village has become emboldened to tout nuclear power once again, even as Japan continues to reel from the economic and psychological costs of the meltdowns and despite ongoing radioactive leaks at Tepco’s Fukushima.

The only talk of energy we hear is about buying cheap liquefied natural gas from the U.S. Yet this is nothing more than another stopgap measure to avoid crafting a sustainable energy policy based on Japan’s domestic low- and no-carbon energy resources that include abundant potential solar, wind, geothermal and marine energy.

And while Japan myopically fiddles with 20th-century measures, China is charging ahead with 21st-century technologies.

“China has halved its growth in electricity demand, dramatically increased its renewable-energy capacity and decelerated its emissions growth,” reports Tim Flannery, the head of the Australian Climate Commission and one of the world’s leading authors on climate change, in a recent interview.

A non-nuclear, low-carbon future for Japan is eminently doable and offers a stable, sustainable economy. Plus, it’s better to compete with China over energy solutions rather than uninhabited islets.

So go for a truly lasting legacy, Mr. Abe, and prove you’re committed, not to Tepco, but to providing a safer and more inspiring future for all today’s young people, worldwide.

Stephen Hesse teaches in the law faculty of Chuo University and is Associate Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com.

  • Theodore Shaw

    This is a long article which lightly touches upon a lot of issues. I’ll address three points.

    1) Even after huge amounts of research and government support worldwide, the non-nuclear low-carbon energy sources which you advocate are currently still not economically viable. The DPJ didn’t recognize this when they set their policy to eliminate nuclear power within a generation (which could be a contributing factor why they lost the election). I support the use of any and all energy sources. However, until technology can develop ways to overcome the many shortcomings of every renewable energy source you highlight, nuclear power will continue to be an appropriate source of reliable, clean and low-carbon power for the long term.

    2) I think you are being overly broad, by making it seem like the entirety of Japan is a dangerous place, due to active tectonic faults. Examination of the active faults in Japan shows that there are many areas with low incidence of fault lines. The truth is that while many locations in Japan have active faults which make them inappropriate for a nuclear reactor, there are many other places which are fine. I’ll grant that recent research has found faults in new locations, to include where at least one nuclear reactor currently exists, but the solution to this is a strong nuclear regulatory agency, as well as the following point.

    3) You completely overlook that the reactors which failed after 3/11 were all of older designs which hadn’t been back-fitted with current-generation safety systems. There were other reactors also hit by the earthquake and tsunami (Fukushima #2 and Onnagawa), but these remained safe. So the solution isn’t to throw the baby out with the bath water and eliminate nuclear power. The solution is to ensure that all reactors in Japan have appropriate post-3/11 designs and safety systems, and that the operators are trained to use them properly.

  • Rainer Klute

    Due to the laws of physics renewables will not be able to provide enough
    stable energy for a industrialized and highly-populated country.
    Nuclear is the only way to produce vast amounts of low-carbon energy and tackle climate change effectively.

    And it might come as a surprise, but inspite of Tschernobyl and
    Fukushima, nuclear has the highest safety records among ALL energy
    sources. E.g. solar accounts for four times more victims per TWh than
    nuclear, not to speak of coal.

  • Sam Gilman

    It would be nice if this article had some facts and figures about the potential for all these energy sources, their costs and so on.

    If climate change is the dominant priority, abandoning the single reliable low-carbon energy source available to Japan (hydro’s potential is low) is crazy. Nuclear is not an environmental risk. It’s a human safety risk. And as another commenter points out, we actually got evidence of the safety of newer designs in the Tohoku earthquake.

    It will take time and absolutely massive construction programmes to make renewables viable at scale. It will probbly require sharing a grid with China. It may be a laudable goal, but we need to act on CO2 now. Hesse does not seem to understand the time constraints involved in his favoured solution.