Nuclear power is galvanizing Japan, stirring up public discussions and outright dissent with demonstrations and all, a rare occurrence in Japan. It has divided the country in two: those who want nuclear power generation to resume so that a stranglehold can be lifted from the economy, and those who want a “nuclear-free” Japan.
Japan’s power nightmare wasn’t triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that resulted in the meltdowns at Fukushima Number One; power companies could have worked around the vacuum left behind by the four defunct reactors. But it was triggered by the Japanese people who finally had had enough. Nuclear contamination in unexpected areas, scandals of collusion between regulators and the omnipotent nuclear power industry, mounting evidence of negligence and even malfeasance, and a history of cover-ups have turned many Japanese against the nuclear power industry and its regulators.
As a result, each time one of the remaining 50 reactors was taken off line for scheduled maintenance, local opposition prevented power companies from bringing it back on line. Until March 11, 2011, nuclear power produced 30% of Japan’s electricity. By the evening of May 5 this year, it was zero. “Nuclear-free” Japan had arrived.
And so had an energy vacuum: during the demand peak this summer, Kansai, the Osaka area that is heavily dependent on nuclear power, is expected to be 15% short on electricity. Other service areas are impacted as well, but less so. The government issued “voluntary” power saving targets to cover the shortfalls. If insufficient, rolling blackouts will be the next step.
Companies are preparing. Power interruptions, rolling blackouts, and even “voluntary” power saving targets would strain resources and cause cascading problems in supply chains. Some companies are relocating production to less affected areas in Japan or to other countries. They will curtail the use of air conditioning while allowing Hawaiian shirts instead of the salaryman garb of suit and tie. Large manufacturers are increasing their own power generation capacity—at a price. TEPCO, the owner of Fukushima Number One, is being nationalized at taxpayer expense (the government may end up owning 76% of the voting rights), and it’s trying to push through a 17% rate hike for its corporate customers. As power generation has switched to natural gas, prices for imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), Japan’s only source, have jumped—causing nine out of Japan’s ten mega-utilities to spill red ink. This is going to be one heck of an expensive summer!
Under heavy pressure from the nuclear industry and Japan Inc. to get nuclear power back into the mix, the government has tried to overcome opposition with reactor “stress tests” and other shenanigans. And it has approved the restart of reactors number 3 and 4 of the nuclear plant in the city of Oi, Fukui Prefecture; they’d passed the “stress test” with flying colors.
But the people failed to bite. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a popular youngish politician, along with Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, Oi Mayor Shinobu Tokioka, and a number of other municipal officials came out against restarting the reactors. And Hashimoto pronounced in the national media what so many had already lamented, that the central government had no way of guaranteeing the safety of the reactors; and he called for the creation of a nuclear regulatory agency that would be truly independent of government and industry alike.
The government, the nuclear industry, and Japan Inc. will continue to push their agenda to get the 50 still functional reactors back on line, one after the other, even if they sit on top of a major fault or are at the end of their design life. But those who strive for a “nuclear-free” Japan feel emboldened by their victory of sorts, and they’re unlikely to lie down.
Yet there cannot be a “nuclear-free” Japan. Not for a generation or two. Japan might succeed in weaning itself off nuclear power in record time, perhaps even this summer, through a mix of conservation, innovative technologies to wring power consumption out of production processes, and increased power generation from fossil fuels. And it might be able to add with record speed solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power generation to its energy portfolio. Given the confiscatory prices Japan has to pay for natural gas ($15 per million Btu and up), renewables are an economic option. But what Japan won’t be able to do quickly is to decommission and get rid of its nuclear power plants.
It will take decades and many billions of dollars to decommission each plant. During that time, the plant will not generate electricity but will turn into a bottomless, radioactive money pit. While smaller reactors have been decommissioned at great expense, no one has yet fully decommissioned a large commercial reactor. The strategy has been to renew the licenses when they expire. The easy way out. For a time. And even after reactors are decommissioned, they remain in the landscape as contaminated concrete hulks. Nuclear power is expensive even if only the first part of its lifecycle—construction and power generation—are included. No power company can afford at current electricity rates to decommission its reactors. So the plan is to hand these expenses to the next generation.
Japan’s nuclear dilemma is not unique. Germany already made the decision to exit nuclear power, but in a methodical fashion so that alternative power generation can be brought on line. All countries with nuclear power plants will eventually have to deal with the costs of decommissioning them. And if Japan gets on the forefront, it might develop unique technologies and become the leader, as it has done so often, in a nascent industry. Meanwhile, whether its nuclear plants are generating power or not, they will remain nuclear facilities with all inherent risks and future expenses.