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.

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Radioactivity is Wife in Japan

In an attempt to make nuclear radioactivity easy to understand, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency has got itself in hot water over a poorly-conceived analogy it published on its website. The analogy was presented as a cartoon of an angry wife, with text drawing the following comparisons:

  • The angry wife is the radioactive source.
  • Her animated state is radioactivity.
  •  Her screaming, angry voice is the radiation itself.
Radioactive wife
Cartoon Comparing Radioactivity to a Not-very-Nicewife. Source: tv-asahi

After garnering a little too much attention the cartoon was taken down yesterday.

Tōhoku – One Year On

Route 398 after Tsunami
Route 398 in Ishinomaki City. Photo by ChiefHira (license)

It is exactly one year since the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan triggered a huge tsunami that claimed around 20,000 lives and left tens of thousands homeless. The world watched in horror as live broadcasts carried high definition video of a churning black waterfall, 10 metres high in places, advancing up to 10 kilometres inland, swallowing whole townships in its wake. The tsunami disabled critical cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station which lead to a serious nuclear incident, explosions and the release of radiation. Japan thus considers the events of March 11 to have been a “triple disaster”, and the Prime Minister at that time declared it to be the largest crisis to face this country since the end of World War Two.

In Nagoya we feel quite removed from what happened on March 11 2011, and what is continuing to unfold in Tohoku – some 500km north-east of here. None of our friends or relatives have been directly affected by the disaster. We have not visited the area, so I cannot provide any information that is first hand. Despite all this I still want to try to convey, however inadequately, something of the suffering that continues to face the people of that region, and the immense challenges yet to face the region and the country as a whole.

March 11 has dominated the TV schedule for the last week. What is clear is that Japan has changed – forever. People who have lived near the sea all of their lives now fear it. Towns and cities scramble to prepare for future tsunamis much taller than have hitherto been forecast. Faith in Japan’s advanced technology has been shaken, and the myth of totally safe nuclear power has been shattered. An incestuous, self-serving relationship between the government nuclear regulator and the nuclear industry has been exposed, one report at a time, compounding what seems to be a loss of trust in government amongst the general public. With the temporary suspension of all nuclear power generation in the country, “Energy Conservation” has become a national religion. People have stopped buying rice and vegetables produced in Tohoku – even from agricultural areas not affected – causing further economic hardship for the region. Fresh produce from China is, for the first time, an appealing alternative. Tourists have stopped coming to Tohoku. Foreign tourists have stopped coming to Japan all together.

The myriad of TV interviews with disaster survivors being broadcast this week echo common themes: Insatiable emptiness. Deep anger. Deep grief. For men who have lost their livelihoods, a general loss of purpose. Regrets. The guilt surviving when your child didn’t. There is anecdotal evidence of families and marriages falling apart; people turning to drink; committing suicide. For thousands who are living in temporary accommodation, either because their homes were destroyed in the tsunami or because of forced evacuation due to radioactive fallout, there is anxiety about when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes and land. Roots in Japan run deep.

Regarding things physical, reconstruction has barely begun. But it has begun. Debris has been stockpiled but not removed, as prefectural governments squabble over where it should be dumped. Master plans for reconstruction of each town are being formulated. Design guidelines for reinforced concrete buildings have been rewritten in a bid to make these structures tsunami-resistant. In Minamisanriku, a town in Miyagi Prefecture that was mostly wiped out, the government plans to remove the top of a couple of hills and build two new hamlets at a safe altitude. Funding to do this is still in question. It is likely to still be half a decade or more before residents can return.

What is clear is that the disaster of March 2011 didn’t occur in March 2011… That’s just when it began. The impact of the disaster in the tsunami-hit region clearly still has a long way to run. The human aspects, psychological and emotional, are only now coming to the forefront of public consciousness. The catchphrase found on goverment literature, billboards, on signs in schools and on cross-promotional products is “Ganbarou, Tohoku.” Hang in there, Tohoku. Keep persevering. Work hard. But the burden of this exhortation is in fact, contrary to the best of intentions, crushing upon the spirits of the survivors. How can a pain so deep from the loss of a son, the disappearance of a wife, be conquered by mere stoicism alone. Contrarily, I believe people need to hear that it’s OK not to cope. This is, in a strange paradox, the only way they can.

This is not the way the world was meant to be. Yet this is how it is. We all need a Saviour to save us from death.

Electricity Prices a Surprise

Given how often I hear Japanese lamenting the cost of electricity in this country, I was surprised to discover yesterday that the cost of residential electricity in this part of Japan is pretty much the same as it is in South Australia (around 25 cents per kWh). I expected Australian rates to be cheaper in comparison given the following:

  • In Chubu electricity is provided by a regional private monopoly; in SA there is (supposedly) competitive markets for power generation and retailing.
  • Japan has almost no natural energy resources. Australia has an abundance, and exports Liquified Natural Gas and coal to Japan.
  • The only nuclear plant that supplies this region has indefinitely suspended operations following the March 11 Tsunami because it was built in a costal location that is right on top of a fault line.(Yes, I know! What were they thinking?) This means that almost all of Chubu’s electricity is now being generated at resource-intensive thermal power plants.

Why isn’t electricity in SA cheaper? Does the “Tyranny of distance” strike again? (i.e. Is the cost of distributing the stuff much more expensive given SA’s widely disbursed population? ) And how much further will it rise once the carbon tax is implemented? Could we end up paying more for energy in resource-rich SA than they (and currently we) pay in resource-poor Japan?

Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant
Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant - All reactors are currently suspended. Photo source: Wikipedia