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Imagining post-nuclear Japan

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has sent shock waves through the political establishment by calling for the end of nuclear power generation in Japan. “There is nothing more costly than nuclear power,” Koizumi was quoted as saying during an interview with Tokyo Shimbun — something Japanese taxpayers are coming to understand very well.

Koizumi may be a late convert to the anti-nuclear movement, but he remains popular, persuasive and, on this issue, absolutely right. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might get some reactors back online in 2014, but he risks a powerful popular backlash because people are not ignoring the lessons of Fukushima. Koizumi is correct in saying that most politicians would go along with Abe if he stood up to the nuclear village and declared “Abenomics” meant tapping the green growth potential of smart, renewable energy. This is a sustainable and affordable low-carbon model that is far more suitable for Japan and developing nations than pricy nuclear reactors.

The old motto of the nuclear village — “safe, cheap and reliable” — now seems like a bad joke. It is hard to put a price tag on the overall consequences of the meltdowns at Fukushima and the ballooning costs of bailing out Tokyo Electric Power Co., but by some estimates it’s $100 billion and rising. There are still more than 100,000 nuclear refugees driven from their homes by the catastrophe. In early November, the government finally acknowledged that many can never return to their ancestral homes. Local farmers and fishermen have a deep hole to climb out of to regain consumer trust, while tourism has been hammered and faces tough prospects. Lingering stigma and health concerns are also exacting a stiff psychological toll on residents.

In the global lexicon, Fukushima is shorthand for nuclear disaster in much the same way as Chernobyl before it. It is indelibly tarnishing the Japan brand and will linger ominously despite Abe’s reassurances that the situation is under control. It doesn’t help that polls show that only 11 percent of Japanese believe Abe, and even Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose has suggested that Abe mislead the International Olympic Committee. The lesson of Fukushima, Mr. Abe, is not the need for better public relations.

Problematically, Abenomics relies heavily on nuclear energy. Abe wants to restart domestic reactors in order to lower fuel imports and, at the same time, reassure potential overseas customers of Japan’s nuclear plant and technology exports. It gets back to the unpersuasive argument that nuclear energy is cheap. It is relatively cheap but only if all the associated costs are excluded from calculations. But associated costs related to rigorous safety inspections, repair and maintenance (most utilities saved money on this by falsifying reports ), temporary and permanent radioactive-waste disposal, safety upgrades, more comprehensive and continuous training of workers, evacuation drills and the decommissioning of reactors are backend costs that boost the sticker price substantially.

The Economist magazine, like Koizumi, recanted and in a special report on nuclear energy argues that it is not commercially viable. Politically, however, the nuclear village is well entrenched in Japan, as it controls the commanding heights of national energy policy. This explains why Tepco is on government-funded life-support at the taxpayers’ expense.

Abe knows that Japan’s 50 viable reactors represent a huge investment and the vested interests in the nuclear village need reactor restarts to recoup their investments and pay off loans. Influential investors and lenders are fighting bankruptcy for Tepco so they don’t have to take a haircut. These vested interests are members of Keidanren, Japan’s most influential business lobby group, and have much to lose if the plug is pulled on nuclear energy and are counting on Abe to fast-track restarts and save their bacon.

But Koizumi’s awkward questions about Japan’s lack of a plan for permanently storing vast stockpiles of highly radioactive nuclear waste can’t be shrugged off; temporary sites are more than 70 percent full. Pro-nuclear advocates have a faith-based policy that something will eventually work out, but in the meantime we have a house without a toilet.

Are renewable energy sources the answer to Japan’s costly nuclear nightmare? Nuclear proponents argue that renewables can’t serve as a baseload source of continuous power like nuclear reactors (when not idled, as they often are for periodic safety checks). They also argue that solar and wind power are expensive and require vast amounts of space that make them unviable alternatives. Thermal plant advocates made similar arguments against nuclear reactors decades ago just as landline phone companies pooh-poohed the potential of mobile phones and skeptics were slow to wake up to the computer revolution.

It is time to move beyond nuclear energy, a flawed “miracle” technology of the 20th century, to 21st-century technology in renewables and radical efficiency improvements made possible by information and communications technology. And Japan is already doing so at breathtaking speed.

Since the introduction of a feed-in tariff system in July 2012 that provides incentives for investment in a range of renewable energies, Japan has brought online about three reactors’ worth of renewable electricity generating capacity, mostly solar. Anyone driving around depopulating rural Japan understands space is not a major constraint, and indeed renewable energy initiatives offer declining communities a lifeline. Decentralizing Japan’s power generation away from centralized nuclear plants prone to cascading disasters also enhances disaster resilience and explains why so many local communities are funding renewable initiatives. Innovations mean that Japan’s largest solar farm is now floating off the coast of Kagoshima and floating platforms now enable Japan to tap its vast wind power potential.

But the grid has to be modernized to tap the potential of renewables, and legislation now under consideration in the Diet might hasten the process by breaking up the utilities’ current monopoly and decoupling electricity generation from distribution. The key is spreading smart-grid technologies essential to managing intermittent sources of energy and reducing energy consumption, an area where Japan is a world leader.

Andrew DeWit, a Rikkyo University energy policy specialist, notes that ongoing smart-city projects in Kitakyushu and Yokohama demonstrate the vast potential of information and communications technology. Major Japanese companies such as Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Hitachi are betting big on smart-city projects at home and targeting megacity projects around the globe. It’s a huge potential market and Japan is well positioned to lead this green revolution. Japan is on the cusp of a breakthrough and, instead of squandering more money on nuclear power in an archipelago prone to major seismic events, it should incentivize investments in green technologies that offer enormous potential and greater disaster resilience. Koizumi reminds us what bold leadership looks like.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Loyd Marlow

    The prime minister is telling the truth, Dollar per watt or Dollar per knot nuclear power is the most expensive power on earth. The dangers of nuclear power are such that it is quite astonishing that civilized societies continue to allow it’s use. The question now is, when does the evacuation of Japan begin?

  • Sam Gilman

    I’m afraid the author of this piece really does not understand renewable energy very well (I’ll explain below some of the basic problems), and it’s disappointing he tries to leverage the reputation of his university to cover up his lack of expertise. I suspect he’s being employed by the Japan Times because of his ideological correctness (in Thatcher’s phrase, he’s “one of us”) rather than for reasons of quality or honest discussion.

    Mr Kingston states that three reactors’ worth of solar power capacity has come on-line since Fukushima. Note the word “capacity”, and then try looking out of your window after 6pm, or up at the sky on a cloudy day or even a cloudy moment and think about what that means for actual output.

    Here is the first of three fairly basic problems with his analysis. Solar panels only generate energy some of the time. They have a capacity factor of 10-15%, meaning that the actual average output is only 10-15% of the stated capacity. Nuclear reactors in Japan have had a historical capacity factor just over 70%, so basically, we’ve built less than around half a reactor’s worth of actual electricity production, which is rather less impressive. Maybe he never looks out of the window, but if Mr Kingston hasn’t worked out this really straightforward issue of how you read the numbers about capacity and output, should he really be writing on the topic at all?

    Capacity factors are important not simply when it comes to how much electricity is produced, but also how much of an electricity source (the grid penetration rate) we can build before we have problems of excess production and the need to either store or effectively throw away electricity produced (curtailing). In simple terms: with low levels of solar we can use all the electricity it produces, even when it peaks (at ten times average production rates). However, if you build up lots of solar to get the average production of solar electricity up, you can’t use all the electricity at peak production times. The per unit cost therefore goes up, and goes up exponentially as you build more. The lower the capacity factor, the sooner you meet this problem.

    The second fairly simple problem is his misunderstanding in claiming that all we need to do is build a smart grid to balance out intermittency. While this is probably feasible over a large continental area running east-west, transporting power from where it is either windy or sunny at any one moment to where it is neither, Japan is a collection of islands that are quite far from the continent and that run North to South without a great variety in weather up and down the country. Sometimes it’s sunny everywhere, sometimes it’s cloudy everywhere. We can’t simply balance things out, given our geography. So why not just build out lots of capacity and store the excess for later use? Alas, we don’t have the ability to store electricity on the scale, duration and reliability that we need. (The pressure of demand on rare earth metals for as yet uninvented long-life high capacity large scale battery systems would be more than the market or quite possibly world supplies could manage. Rare earth mining is also environmentally not very pretty.) As far as I know, for the foreseeable future, the only effective way we have of power storage on any large scale is hydro storage – either varying the output of hydrostations, or pumping water from a low place to a high place. Which means chopping off the tops of lots of hills and mountains and building reservoirs. Groovy.

    The third problem is his failure to take the issue of land use seriously. He just looks out at rural Japan and somehow just feels in his gut that surely that’s enough land. Again, he’s just ignoring the numbers. It’s almost as if he doesn’t care whether solar will work enough, just so long as he can pretend it can replace fossil fuels for propaganda purposes. This article, amongst other things, runs the maths on solar power for Japan. Of all the renewable energies, solar power has the highest power density, meaning you can get more out of solar per square metre of land than, say, wind. However, even if we make some very generous assumptions on the future efficiency of solar power and forget how mountainous this land is, covering every single square inch of non-forested land in Japan would barely generate the equivalent of current electricity demand, and that’s before the intermittency and storage issues I outlined above are taken into account. People might reply with “we also need to cut electricity use so fingers crossed we’ll be ok”. However, this overlooks the fact that we also need to move from energy generated directly by fossil fuels (such as in transport) to low-carbon electricity. We actually need more electricity, not less, to de-carbonise. Is Mr Kingston suggesting we start chopping down the forests? I’m sure he’s also aware of how unstable a lot of that land is (which is why a lot of it has not been built on). Does he want even more concrete poured over the landscape? Probably not, but returning to the central problem: Mr Kingston has been employed to write this not because he knows what he’s talking about, but because he has the same ideological position of the Japan Times, which is not environmentalist (far from it), but fundamentalist anti-nuclear.

    Frankly, I’m not convinced he even sufficiently grasps what the baseload issue is. He’s right on the basics that we need a certain amount of electricity that is always available and that this is called baseload: plants working at full capacity all the time. (Economically, it’s simply true that this suits higher capital cost coal and nuclear. There is a fantasy that Mr Kingston and others at the JT like to promote, that nuclear is wildly economically unsustainable and that governments around the world have built and are building nuclear power stations simply because they are under the magical spell of evil demons. Actually, if we don’t want to burn coal (which we seriously don’t), they can make economic sense). In addition to baseload we need to vary production according to demand. This is called load following and peaking. Less capital-intensive gas is economically good at this. The problem with renewables is that because they are intermittent (you can’t rely on them being always available), they are inherently not good for baseload, and why trying to make them able to provide baseload is one of the big challenges we face. Here’s the bit he doesn’t grasp: At the moment, introducing wind or solar on a large scale means building gas back-up which will step in when wind or solar aren’t providing. The lower capacity factors of wind and particularly solar means that gas steps in a lot, but because the stations are for “peaking” (ie they’re frequently idled, but have to stick around), the per unit cost of the electricity they make goes up. Mr Kingston mentions that nuclear power stations need idling, and so are not always on. This is true. What Mr Kingston has failed to realise is that solar and wind are effectively idle even more, and what’s worse, these outs are pretty much unschedulable. Those gas stations need to be ready at any moment. Where is all this in his cost calculations? (Where too is the cost of nationwide high capacity low-loss lines for his smart grid balancing act?) If one is going to complain about hidden costs in one form if energy, it’s only honest up include them for the form one favours. By the by, is he also going to come out in favour of shale gas and fracking, to make sure we have enough cheapish gas to do all of this?

    Wind and solar have an important part to play but currently and in the near future, if we actually look at the numbers and if we model electricity systems (rather than pompously waving such matters away), it’s clear we simply do not actually know how to make these intermittent renewables the mainstay of our electricity production. There are reasons why an increasing number of environmentalists concerned about the urgency of climate change action are openly stating we cannot simply abandon nuclear power. The low-carbon numbers are not rolling out any other way. (We have to cross our fingers and hope in a place like Japan with deep waters close to shore, floating offshore wind can be made to work to overcome the power density problem.)

    Aside from that, there is some embarrassingly weak argumentation that suggest a lack of mature engagement. (some people many years ago were wrong about mobile phones, therefore other people (Mr Kingston’s imagined opponents) are wrong about the technicalities of the baseload issue? He actually thinks that’s an argument? Lord help Mr Kingston’s students).

    This is a serious issue. Could the JT get someone who takes the issue seriously to write articles, instead of Jeff Kingston?

  • Steve Moyer

    I
    did this research in 1983. One of the potential “products” of space
    manufacturing was highly sensitive radiation detectors. I believe they
    already exist today. Where is the data? We have a right to that data.
    Japan should launch a radiation detection satellite network for the
    benefit of humanity. It’s appropriate.

    http://metamind.us/spaceman/

  • Steve Moyer

    It will cost over $500 billion.

  • Steve Moyer

    Boycott ALL Japanese corporations until they renounce nuclear forever!

  • greenthinker2012

    Another great plan by Steve.

  • http://www.thevisionmachine.com/ Conrad Brean

    Under the new secrets law…Koizumi could be placed under arrest for endangering national security. How dare he speak out against TEPCO. We all know it has had our best interests at its heart for decades…….(not)