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. But there is no quick way out, even if everyone wanted it.
The fourth warmest winter on record, which curtailed the use of natural gas for heating, coincided with record production of natural gas. Storage facilities, filled to record levels for this time of the year, may soon reach capacity, forcing the industry to flare excess gas. This, doom-and-gloom theorists go, will force the price of gas to zero in the US. The point of maximum pain. But there’s a monumental shift, and demand is spiking.
The meltdowns at Fukushima that have caused so much havoc have also paralyzed Japan’s nuclear power industry. The last of its 54 reactors will be taken off line in May. “Deindustrialization” grips power-starved Japan. TEPCO, owner of the plant, is bailed out with trillions of yen in taxpayer money. And now, halfway around the world, in the EU, nuclear power is lining up to suck at the teat of the taxpayer, but ingeniously, those in other countries.
In early December, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, the Exxon à la Française, shocked the French when he said that there was “no doubt” that a liter of gasoline would reach €2 and that the only question was when. He cited the calamities in the news at the time to justify the skyrocketing prices of oil and gasoline—source of Total’s mega profits. He was talking his book, obviously, which isn’t illegal, not even in France.
Natural gas is dirt cheap, hovering at a 10-year low. In the US, that is. In other parts of the world, natural gas is four, five times more expensive—a rare discrepancy in a globalized economy. But the US, largest producer in the world, stunningly, has no facilities to export it. So President Obama has made dirt-cheap natural gas a cornerstone of his energy policy, but investors are bloodied, and drilling activity is falling off a cliff.
Republicans are trying to tar President Obama with gas prices that are creeping up on $4 a gallon and are shooting for an all-time high. The strategy is working. Obama’s approval rating on handling gas prices has plunged. In San Francisco, gas is already $4.50. Yet across the Bay are five oil refineries that together are the largest exporters of petroleum products in the nation.