The last of Japan’s 54 nuclear energy reactors was turned off for routine maintenance on May 5th; it is unlikely to resume operations. When the third reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido prefecture closed for maintenance, the country was left with no electricity generated by a nuclear plant for the first time since 1970. The disaster at the Fukushima plant has resulted in nuclear reactors in Japan being turned off one by one. As each reactor is shut down for routine maintenance, the plant supervisors have refused to give permission to turn them back on under pressure from local governments and residents. This is an understandable reaction to a disaster of epic proportions, but with no alternative energy sources in place, Japan’s energy future hangs in the balance.
Rolling summer blackouts
About a third of Japan’s energy was supplied by nuclear plants prior to the Fukushima disaster, the threat of rolling blackouts in the summer months looms. The Japanese government has been plugging the holes in the energy dyke with liquid natural gas. The price of importing this fossil fuel is high. Not only is the reliance on fossil fuels detrimental to the environment, but the local residents will have to bear the increased costs of electricity. A 15% reduction in usage will have to be improved upon to deal with the increased summer energy requirements.
Rising energy costs and rolling blackouts will have a very negative impact on industry. This has trade minister, Yukio Edana, nervous about the economic future of Japanese businesses. He has been lobbying to have two reactors, taken offline at the Ohi nuclear plant, restarted in a bid to alleviate projected power shortages of 20% in the area. This controversial step has not won favor with the general populace. Activists argue that investing in renewable sources of energy will stimulate the economy and solve the energy crisis.
Profits before people?
Robert Jacobs, professor of Nuclear History at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, argues that the bid to restart the reactors is an economic choice and another example of the Japanese government putting profits before people: “The government of Japan and the power companies are dedicated to restarting the reactors. This is primarily for two reasons. First, they believe that the longer the nuclear plants remain offline, the harder it will be to eventually restart them. So they are determined to restart the reactors just to keep them viable. This is a political choice. The second reason is because the power companies have invested so much money into the nuclear power plants (half of their assets for some of them) that they do not want to see those investments become worthless.”
Proponents of the scheme argue that cuts in energy supplies will have a terrible effect on Japan’s already floundering economy. Massive government bailouts and industrial losses caused by the earthquake and tsunami could spell economic disaster for Japan. Last year saw Japan’s biggest trade deficit ever, with the country hemorrhaging an additional $100 million dollars a day.
A move to sustainability
Japan’s long term solution to the energy crisis relies heavily on renewables with a target of 25 to 30% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2030. The recent approval of a ‘feed-in tariff’ system will help to encourage reliance on solar energy. Hiroshi Hamasaki, a renewable energy expert at Fujitsu Research Institute, claims that the new “feed-in” tariffs are so popular that the number of solar installations could increase over 200 times over the next three years. To expedite proceedings, the government has eased restrictions on land use for solar and wind power and relaxed regulations on small hydropower projects and drilling for geothermal energy.
Renewable energy sources are popular with the Japanese people. The ‘feed-in tariff’ programs are backed by superb Japanese technology in the solar energy field. The incorporation of renewable energy into the Japanese electricity supply grid will take time, but it is ultimately the best possible direction in which they can go.