A non-Fukushima nuclear reactor in Ohi, Japan. Image: Times Live
After the 2011 tsunami, Japan, along with a few other notable nations like Germany, went full-on rebel against nuclear power. Japan had been planning to increase its nuclear power production before the disaster—after Fukushima, the most harrowing nuclear catastrophe in decades, it quickly decided to shut them all down instead.
Now, there's just a reactor or two left running in a country that used to get a third of its power from nuke plants. A country that is also home to the 3rd biggest economy in the world. As this recent debriefing from the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaboration explains, the whole situation has forced Japan's hand on a "whirlwind of energy policy decisions." Like, whether or not to fire those nukes back up. Or if not, how to replace them.
Right now, Japan is importing coal, natural gas, and oil at a breakneck pace to make up for the shortfall. It has also instituted dramatic energy efficiency regimens that everyone was cool with at first, but that are inevitably growing irksome. So what to do?
Tepco, the state-run power company, is devising plans to build 12.5 gigwatts of coal-fired power plants. But that move is opposed by many, including the national business lobby, because it's way more expensive than firing up the nukes. It would also be disastrous for the climate—teetering on the precipice of catastrophic global warming as we are, the very last thing the world needs is the planet's most technologically advanced society building a dozen gigs of dirty coal power.
We've noted before that Japan has gone on a post-Fukushima renewable energy binge, by heavily incentivizing new solar and wind projects. And notably, there's a proposal to build the world's largest wind farm right off the coast of the now-defunct Fukushima nuke plant. BERC notes that these renewable-friendly policies could lead to a 20 gigawatt spike in capacity by 2014. So we're getting warmer. But what about now?
Well, the nuke plants are probably going to get fired up again. The newly elected prime minister is in favor of switching them back on. The biggest obstacle is public opinion—people are justifiably terrified of nuclear power at the moment. Tepco was heavily criticized for its slack pre-disaster oversight and its lack of transparency during the emergency response. Here's how the Economist ultimately diagnosed Tepco's failure:
The reactors at Fukushima were of an old design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information about the movement of the radioactive plume, so some people were evacuated from more lightly to more heavily contaminated places.
The outcome could quite easily have been even worse.
Tepco did itself no favors by advocating vehemently and publicly for keeping its emergency procedures secret just six months after the disaster, either. But alas. Nuclear is infinitely better than coal, and while it's prohibitively expensive and inadvisable to build new nuke plants, extant ones, when well-regulated, can provide a much-needed source of clean, carbon-free energy. At least, UC Berkeley's resident energy pro Richard Muller thinks so. And he thinks that's why they're going to switch the nukes back on:
Switching to coal is terrible is many ways from the mining pollution to the coal ash pollution to the global warming issues. The dangers of coal are far worse than those of a nuclear reactor. And they would have to import the coal, too. They lose on the national security issue… It makes so much sense for Japan to turn its nuclear reactors back on, and that is what I believe Japan will do. They will do it quietly… They give the impression it’s only temporary, but I think the alternative of coal would be far, far worse.
The key is transparency, as was recently argued in the venerable science journal Nature. If the government can push for greater transparency, shake up the overly cozy relationship between regulators and the nuke operators, then perhaps it can make the case to the public that nukes are better than coal, even in the wake of a tragedy as disturbing as Fukushima.