Monday, July 22, 2013

A Sour Sweet Nuclear Japan

“The central government’s policy on nuclear power generation will return to the pre-disaster one,” said Tatsuya Murakami, mayor of Tokai village in Ibaraki Prefecture, on July 21. “By postponing a solution to the problems resulting from the nuclear accident, the government will do what it wants to do.

“It is disappointing that Japan will not be able to change itself despite the serious accident it caused,” he said.

I know, it sounds like sour grapes. But Murakami has a grievance and maybe he’s letting off some steam. It’s really not true that the Japanese government has postponed solutions. 

Last month, Japan Atomic Power began installing filter-attached vent equipment and erecting sea walls to meet the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new safety rules on nuclear power generation that took effect on July 8.

The reason Murakami is so unhappy is that the Liberal Democratic Party (the conservatives) took over the upper chamber in Japan’s diet, giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party control of both chambers. And quite open about not working as hard as the Democrats with prefecture officials to win their approval for restarts. Hence Murakami’s dissatisfaction.

This month, TEPCO announced plans to hasten the restarts of reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture. The company did not offer any advance explanation to the local governments hosting the plant.

Actually, I think it was the central government not the companies working this side of things; still, it would have been better public relations for TEPCO to talk with the prefecture officials.

As we used to say in grad school, let’s unpack what Japan’s return to nuclear energy means. Japan has been in a political rinse cycle for a long time, with difficulties keeping a government in place for any length of time. What’s up today may be down tomorrow. Still, Japan’s political class has decided that, economically and industrially, it would be ruinous to replace nuclear energy in a resource-poor country, especially since it is unnecessary. It’s not just the carbon emissions profile of natural gas and coal that’s a problem, it’s that Japan has to import those items and that’s proven to be a mammoth financial burden. (It imports uranium, too, but needs much less of it to fulfill its energy needs.) It’s a dreadful double whammy that Japan is wise to avoid.

Gas to Power puts a price on this:

The return to nuclear would reduce the share of gas in Japan's energy mix and electricity prices. The Institute for Energy Economics in Japan (IEEJ) forecasts restarting twenty six of the country's nuclear power stations in 2014 could lower the electricity fuel cost by 1.8 trillion yen [about $13.4 billion] and reduce generation costs by about 2 yen/kWh.

This really is the best direction for Japan to take. But even if we agree wholeheartedly with the Liberal Democrats’ decision, we might want to keep the celebration subdued and tasteful (and not loud and raucous, our preferred party mode). It might have been a sweeter thing if we could be surer that the Japanese people welcome this outcome.

Nearly 60 percent of voters oppose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to use nuclear energy to fuel economic growth, but 51 percent expect his policies to improve the economy, an Asahi Shimbun [Japanese newspaper] survey showed.

That’s a lot better than one would have seen a year ago. Maybe restarting the facilities – and rehiring furloughed workers – will push those numbers higher. But they are still not very high withal, making the decision to move forward with nuclear energy a braver one than most politicians would dare. Yet it is also a necessary decision – and not really a very difficult one, even for Japan.

So good for Abe. And good for the Japanese people and Japan’s nuclear industry. Maybe I could talk myself into thinking this problematic if I really worked at it – but it refuses to be problematic.

1 comment:

jimwg said...

Re: "It might have been a sweeter thing if we could be surer that the Japanese people welcome this outcome."

It ever amuses me how worked up people are over a disaster that didn't happen. Usually and logically it's the other way around...

One wonders what inhibits the Japanese nuclear companies from collaborating on a massive public nuclear power education campaign on TV and web instead of leaving center stage to anti-nukes. I'd hate to say they don't have the junk or Mad Ave keen to do this.

James Greenidge
Queens NY