Friday, September 14, 2012

Japan to Phase Out Nuclear Energy – Over 30 Years – Maybe

The New York Times has the story:

In its first comprehensive energy review since the Fukushima disaster, Japan said on Friday that it would seek to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s — but only after a longer-than-expected transition that would give power companies decades to recoup their investments and brace for a nonnuclear future.

By the end of the 2030s? The Times also notes this:

In announcing the plan, however, Motohisa Furukawa, the minister of state for national policy, seemed to suggest that the measures were loose guidelines open to revision and discussion. For example, he said the government would leave to future discussion whether five reactors that would be younger than 40 years by the end of the 2030s would be forced to close — leaving open the possibility that some reactors will remain running into the 2040s and beyond.

I wondered how Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was going to thread the needle between bowing to the will of the people and the need to keep the economy from cratering – and I guess this is it.

The Times has decided this will satisfy business owners but not other factions:

“It’s trickery with words and numbers,” said Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a research group based in Tokyo. “The zero number might be symbolic politically, but in reality, it holds little meaning.”

“How is the government going to push through reactor restarts when there’s still so much opposition? It has no clue what to do next month, never mind by the 2030s,” he said.

I’d guess Iida is a renewables guy, so factor that in.

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There is a risk of sounding too much like Goldilocks about this news – if Germany is shuttering its plants too quickly and Japan too slowly, what’s just right?

Let me leave aside the obvious answer – don’t shut the plants down – and say, as I’ve said numerous times before, that nuclear energy is not a trap. Countries have to decide their energy profiles for themselves. Investing heavily in any energy source and then leaving it – especially when it is inexpensive and a potent supplier – is going to generate numerous economic and social issues that have to be addressed. The Japanese are explicit in saying that it doesn’t want to crater its power companies:

The 2039 time frame, on the other hand, would allow most of those reactors to live out their 40-year life span, heading off costly losses for their operators. Japanese utilities are also saddled with the huge costs of buying oil and natural gas to meet the nuclear shortfall, a burden that would be alleviated once their reactors are restarted.

So Japan has made a decision that sidesteps many of the obvious issues surrounding such a decision; it has kicked the can way, way down the road. The only conclusion I can really draw is that the story of nuclear energy in Japan is far from over.

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A word of warning. The Asahi Shimbun (a national Japanese newspaper) and other Japanese outlets offer accounts of a meeting between Japanese officials and U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman about the long nuclear exit, but I couldn’t find an American source about this. That’s a red flag – not because the Japanese reports are inflammatory or even wrong necessarily, but you want to be careful about stories in translation. (The absence of it in the Times story is another reason for caution.)

There’s also some talk in the stories about the Japanese hording coal and natural gas and causing higher energy prices worldwide. This is highly dubious at worst, idle speculation at best.

In other words, some of the reporting is less than it should be, so keep the truthiness radar on.

1 comment:

jim said...

What really floors me is the plague of crickets in Japan regarding the very non-theoretical downsides in pollution and health and CO2 effects on the population with a fossil fuel shift. One wonders whether the Japanese public is being intentionally treated like mushrooms in not being as enlightened about this proven peril as they were scared witless with over-the-top Doomsday reporting on the zero-victim Fukushima incident -- NOT "disaster."

James Greenidge
Queens NY