Kowtowing to the power companies

The Abe administration has started a “review from the zero base” of the predecessor Democratic Party of Japan government’s energy policy, whose centerpiece was ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power in the 2030s.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has criticized a move to phase out nuclear power generation as “irresponsible” and is seeking to restart nuclear power plants, dropping the policy of eventually ending nuclear power.

The experience of the catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant should be basis of Japan’s energy policy. The lesson from the nuclear crisis is clear: Nuclear power generation is a technology that is extremely difficult to control, especially in this quake-prone country.

More than 150,000 Fukushima residents still cannot return to their homes due to radiation risks. It is deplorable that Mr. Abe does not appear to take the Fukushima nuclear disaster seriously.

In addition to the danger of nuclear power, the Fukushima nuclear crisis clearly showed that the traditional policy of building a limited number of big power plants — thermal or nuclear — in areas remote from large cities and sending electricity from there to the power consumption centers is fatally flawed. But the Abe administration is trying to revive the policy of building large power plants in remote areas instead of establishing smaller power generation sources across the country.

The power outages after the Fukushima crisis testified to the failure of that policy and led many local governments and enterprises to realize the importance of having their own power sources. To their benefit, the development of renewable electricity sources is making progress and a law has entered into force requiring major power companies in principle to purchase electricity produced by renewable sources.

Given the seriousness and repercussions of the Fukushima nuclear fiasco, the reasonable path for Japan should be working out a concrete time line to abolish nuclear power generation, at least in 20 to 30 years, and to expand the weight of renewable electricity sources. Cases have been reported of major power companies refusing to purchase electricity from green sources by taking advantage of a clause in the law that allows the companies to refuse to buy such electricity if they fear that electricity supplies will become unstable. The government should close this loophole to ease the sale of electricity from green sources to power companies

Without committing himself to ending nuclear power generation, Mr. Abe only says that he will establish a “best mix” of power generation sources within 10 years.

The Abe administration has also set up a new government panel on energy policy and limited the representation of people calling for eventual abolition of nuclear power — a departure from a similar panel under the DPJ rule that included many members who held this view.

The Abe administration’s refusal to pay heed to the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster shows that it is just kowtowing to the interests of the power industry.

  • phu

    I can’t stand this knee-jerk anti-nuclear response. The “lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster” are, at most, that unbelievably massive natural disasters cause serious problems, and that building anything potentially dangerous right near the coast in or near a seismically active area is a bad idea.

    Do you abolish air travel after a plane crash due to a freak windstorm? No, because it’s still the safest way to travel. Why so many people can’t seem to apply logic to this doesn’t matter, but the failure to think carefully about it certainly does. The world is being led around by the nose by people who just don’t think before reacting.

    I’m not even suggesting nuclear power should be kept indefinitely. I’m saying that regardless of whether it is or not, a FAR more reasoned response is necessary.

    • piotr

      You accuse The Japan Times of lack of logic but the same can be said about your opinion.
      “Do you abolish air travel after a plane crash due to a freak windstorm? No, because it’s still the safest way to travel.”
      Not true, you don’t abolish it because it’s the only way of traveling fast, between continents etc. In case of energy, there are many ways of generating it and many of the so called merits of nuclear power are at least disputable. For example, the real cost of nuclear plants is significantly higher than what you can find in official (Japanese) statistics- the generous subsidies provided over the years must be included.
      And answering to the thread below. Sure, there may be areas where part of the 150 000 evacuees could return to their homes safely. But this is exactly where the problem with nuclear energy, radiation and contamination lies: it triggers fast amount of irrational behavior as no other technology does, and this has nothing to do with politics. You just have to to take it into account.

      • You may have a valid point re. the true costs of nuclear – but those who oppose it are even more guilty of ignoring the true costs of non-nuclear.

        Several thousand people die, annually, from coal – either in industrial accidents or from respiratory disease brought on or aggravated by the pollution caused by coal. Fly ash is radioactive, to the point that there are abandoned mines and pits that the ash was dumped into for decades that are now “no go” zones – people cannot live in the vicinity and the groundwater is contaminated.

        Fracking for natural gas has similarly destroyed groundwater supplies to the extent that some towns in the US now need to truck in water, as their own supply is irretrievably contaminated.

        There are areas of Africa completely devastated by crude oil spills on a scale that make the recent Gulf spill off Louisiana look like someone kicked over a quart can of oil in their yard.

        Climate change, aggravated by greenhouse gasses, is creating dustbowls in some areas and floods in others. Just the year before 3/11 massive floods in Pakistan left 2 million homeless. That is not a typo – 2 million.

        Solar electricity generation is held to be “clean” – which it is, if we only consider the effect of putting prebuilt panels into the environment. But panels are not organic things that can be grown – they require rare earths, the mining of which is proving to be yet another environmental disaster as it generally involves strip mining and generation of huge amounts of soil which is turned into toxic waste in the process of recovering those rare earths.

        Wind farms are expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain, while requiring far more maintenance than almost any other power generation method. Windmills have also been proven to be detrimental to the health of any humans or animals living in close proximity as the non-stop noise of the turbine over days or weeks can cause insomnia, depression and miscarriages.

        Yet anti-nuclear advocates seem to be saying that all of these are preferable – not better, perhaps, but preferable. If a couple of million brown-skinned people in a far away country die of famine or lose their homes in massive flooding, well that’s a shame. It is still preferable to building nuclear power plants – and news editors will lose interest quickly anyway, so we won’t be troubled by seeing their plight for more than an evening or two.

        You are also correct in saying that nuclear power triggers irrational behavior like no other technology and like nothing else besides religion. That does not mean that irrational viewpoints need to be taken into account. I think it is high time we stopped trying to deal rationally with irrational people like Helen Caldicott or Michio Kaku or others who share their “beliefs” and started ostracizing them.

    • “and that building anything potentially dangerous right near the coast in or near a seismically active area is a bad idea”

      I don’t even think you could go that far.

      See Onagawa. Was closer to the epicenter. Had higher waves. Had 0 problems — in fact acted as a safe zone for evacuees that sheltered there.

      It’s a multi-part problem…

      1. Location requiring more contingencies

      2. Bad Design by GE and not updated sufficiently

      3. Lack of proper oversight regarding #2

      It’s worth pointing out the 3 reactors causing the most problems are among the first reactors built in Japan. What we learned is, essentially, that technology needs to be updated. Especially once a design is demonstrated to be faulty, as GE’s was many years ago.

  • A seriously flawed editorial, showing once again how the editors of the Japan Times possess a blatant disregard for facts and science.

    Many of the residents of areas within the evacuation zone could safelt return to their homes today. That they are prevented from doing so is not due to “radiation risks”, but to a political decision with no basis in science.

    Building large power plants a distance from cities and transmitting the electricity to those cities is not a “fatally flawed policy”. Do the editors of the Japan Times have any inkling how much electricity is used by Tokyo, and how much could be generated within Tokyo itself by the renewable methods they seem so fond of? Yes, many buildings have gone to on-site power generation – burning fossil fuels in large generators, thereby releasing greenhouse gasses and pollution.

    Solar panels on the roof of a single-family house may well be sufficient, on most days, to provide electricity for that house. Provided of course the house has large storage batteries to hold that electricity for use once the sun goes down. But all the rooftop space in Tokyo would be completely inadequate to provide the amount of electricity the city needs. Regardless of the power generation method used – thermal, nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal or a mix of all of the above, the power generating facilities needed will require a lot of land and that land does not exist within Tokyo, or Osaka, or Nagoya or any other major city. In fact if one is serious about solar, the land required does not exist in all of Japan! It has been calculated, based on Japan’s power needs and the efficiency of solar panels, that every square meter of flat land in all of Japan would need to be covered in solar panels to ensure enough electricity – on a sunny day.

    I further find amusing the notion, put forth in a liberal newspaper no less, that the State should step in to force private-sector power companies to purchase “green” energy regardless of whether that energy supply is stable or not – and if it is any “green” energy aside from geothermal, it is by definition unstable. The sun does not always shine, the wind does not always blow, and sometimes when it does it blows so strongly, as in a typhoon, that windfarms must be shut down or the turbines would overspeed and tear themselves apart.

    The lesson of Fukushima is not that “nuclear power is extremely difficult to control”. The US Navy, for example, has been safely controlling nuclear power for decades without a single incident. The lesson of Fukushima is that a 40-year-old reactor design took a direct hit from the largest earthquake Japan had seen in 1000 years, an earthquake several times more powerful than what the plant was designed to withstand, and remained standing. Damaged, yes, but fundamentally intact. If the plant had not placed its backup power generation on-site, in basements which flooded when the tidal wave came, there is a good chance the situation would not have spiraled out of control as it did. The issue was not that “nuclear power is difficult”, it was that Tepco didn’t plan properly and did not listen to the plant’s designers. However, as is well-known, hindsight is 20-20.

    What is needed now is a responsible evaluation of Japan’s energy needs, the methods available to meet those needs, and the costs and benefits of those methods. I recall that prior to March 11, 2011, the “hot issue” in the Japanese media, including this paper, was global warming and greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately the anti-nuclear movement, driven by fear-mongers and luddites and with ranks filled with people who not only don’t understand the issues but cannot be bothered to even think about them critically, has succeeded in pushing their agenda ahead of a reasoned debate on the energy issue.

  • Roy Warner

    The problem for Japan is that the entire country is seismically active. Even research in the past couple of years has uncovered now obvious dangers that have until now been overlooked. Nuclear power may be relatively safe in some countries, but it is not safe in Japan. Building several reactors in the same location means, as everyone living in north and central Japan now knows, if you have one problem, you have several problems. The US Navy has so far not been stupid enough to build reactors in earthquake prone regions and Japan has declined to allow the US Navy to manage its nuclear power industry. The US Navy attempted to keep its personnel out of zones with rates of exposure lower than those in which Japan’s government blithely allowed its own people to stew. In other words, the US Navy cares more about its personnel than Japan’s government cares about its citizens. So, kudos to the US Navy but I doubt the Navy’s experience will be useful in this case.