Oi! Oi! Nuclear is Back!

Prior to the accident at Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear power for around 30% of its generation capacity (with plans to raise that to 50% by 2030), and had a total of 54 active reactors dotted around the country’s coast. For the last few months none have been operational because of ongoing public concern over their safety.

With the summer season now upon us however, demand for electricity for air conditioning will skyrocket leaving the Kansai area in particular with a significant shortfall unless some of the nuclear reactors are restarted. The most likely candidate was the plant at Oi, in Fukui Prefecture, part of Japan’s “Nuclear Alley”. This is a place close to my heart, because when I was last living in Japan it was close to my home!

For weeks we have witnessed a pantomime with the nuclear regulator, plant operator, prefectural governments and the Prime Minister all playing roles. This pantomime slowly conveyed to a largely sceptical public a carefully crafted message: this is safe, and this is inevitable. When the Prime Minister finally announced the restart he framed his argument around the importance of affordable electricity for maintaining the Japanese standard of living.

The Oi reactor was restarted this week and is expected to start to transmit electricity from today.

I have just a few thoughts to share:

Firstly, I think it’s incredible that Japan has to-date survived the loss of 30% of its generation capacity without rolling blackouts. This has been achieved through restarting mothballed thermal plants and encouraging people and businesses to save energy.

Secondly, I note with interest that there is no sunset date for the restarted operation of Oi, something which would seem sensible given that the extra demand will only last until the summer ends and that reaching public consensus over the future of nuclear power in Japan is still far off.

Thirdly, I think geothermal electricity generation could in future play a much larger part in Japan’s energy mix. For this source of electricity Japan’s unstable geology becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo area still have no nuclear plants in operation. Several years ago TEPCO boasted in a TV commercial that 40% of its power came from nuclear plants in Niigata and Fukushima. I didn’t want them looking silly (again), so I took the liberty of updating their ad.

Before (view commercial)

Peak Japan

Japan’s rapid development following its humiliating defeat in the Pacific War has been well documented. During the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s the country’s infrastructure developed at an unprecedented rate and to a very full extent. Highways and bridges were built servicing areas with no need for them. Airports were constructed in remote, lightly-populated areas to fly vegetables to the cities. (Have you ever bought a radish that has its own Air Miles?) Unused concert halls and empty art galleries were built in the smallest of hamlets. Railways were expanded to every corner of the country and sprawling subways (underground railways) were built under most of the major urban centres. While current residents enjoy the fruits of this investment, they are increasingly having to shoulder the burden of maintaining it all.

On NHK news last night there was a story about the increasing cost of maintaining Japan’s now ageing public infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, and municipal public buildings. Maintenance costs for public infrastructure have been increasing year on year for the last half-century, and last year, for the first time, more money was spent maintaining current infrastructure than building new stuff. In the last couple of decades Japan has been stuck in a cycle of deflation, so these increases in costs are real, not inflationary.

This would all probably be OK if the economy was growing (it’s barely moving), the population was increasing (it’s declining), the number of taxpaying workers was going up (it’s not),  there was little public debt (it’s now at a whopping 220% of GDP), and there were no other budgetary surprises (it is now forecast that decommissioning and decontaminating Fukushima will take 40 years). Living in Japan in 2012 really feels like living in a post-developed economy that is just starting to go into gradual but terminal decline.

So what’s the solution? On the news story last night NHK looked at how the municipality of Hamamatsu was dealing with the problem. Their solution is a public fire sale. Assets that can be sold will be sold, and the small amount of money raised will be used to demolish assets that have no value. The national government is currently pursuing legislation to increase sales tax. Further tax increases along with cuts to social services and the national pension scheme are inevitable.

Unless some other radical step is taken (such as opening the country to mass immigration) I think that residents of Japan in 2030 will look back to 2012 as the end of a golden era for Japanese public services, taxes, and infrastructure.

BBQ on Chita Peninsula

Yesterday we had a BBQ lunch at a delightful little harbour at the south of the Chita Peninsula. The BBQ was arranged by the previously mentioned “Special Tomato Friend” and his good mate “Fisherman Friend”. As it turned out, Fisherman Friend invited some of his fisherman mates, who rocked up one-by-one throughout the afternoon, bringing with them more seafood and beer. (Some of which was actual beer.) It seems that Tuesday is the standard day off for fishermen of this area, and Special Tomato Friend isn’t too busy at this time of year – he’s just waiting around for his hydroponic tomatoes to grow.

Fisherman at BBQ

Anyone who has studied Japanese knows that there is all the difference in the world between Standard Japanese (標準語) and the language that real people actually speak. I have discovered that the absurdity of the Japanese spoken can be calculated accurately using this equation:

W = D * 1+Ff * 1+(1/2A)


W = Weirdness of Japanese

D = Distance from Tokyo in kilometres

Ff = Number of Fishermen Present

A = Alcohol Consumed by Present Fishermen

The value of W fluctuated from 600 to 2300 throughout the afternoon, making it extremely difficult for me to accurately follow the conversation. However, I did glean the following points:

  • Australian Snapper is too thin. Japanese Snapper is nice and fat. You guys gotta fatten up your fish!
  • Japanese politicians LOVE nuclear power plants. Every time one is built, the get a little bit richer. Japanese people don’t really like them.
  • When I retire I’m gonna drive my boat to Australia. Do you think one tank of fuel will be OK?
  • …but I won’t retire until I’m 75. (Given that he’ll probably live to 150, that doesn’t seem so absurd.)

The BBQ was absolutely delicious. It included some of the best squid sashimi that I’ve ever tasted (nice and firm but not hard and chewy), a couple of boxes of fresh crabs, and deliciously fatty Wagyu beef.

Box of Crabs

Preparing the Food

Another interesting fact about the location of the BBQ was that it was a popular spot for those undertaking “Empty Business Trips” (空出張). In Japan, it is important to be seen to be busy in the eyes of your work colleagues. This means staying late even when there is no work to do. In order to stay late, you need to find something to do all day! There were about 5 cars with businessmen undertaking Empty Business Trips at the harbour for the majority of the time we were there. They’d even leave to get some lunch from the convenience store and then come back for the afternoon shift!

Empty Business Trip
Here is a Secom employee busy checking the electronic security system that must have been surreptitiously installed on this rubble car park.

Another absurdity of the afternoon was when Special Tomato Friend gave Nicewife’s dad a hat with “USS Arizona – Pearl Harbor” emblazoned in English across the front. This gift was made with absolutely no sense of irony. Fantastic!