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.
Nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water. -Einstein
The devastation of the Japanese earthquake and the massive loss of life is a tragedy of such epic proportions that it is hard to assimilate the true magnitude of human suffering. The nuclear threat posed by the damage to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant promises to escalate the already desperate situation. Gaping holes in statements released by the government do little to quell the fears of the Japanese people. With traces of radiation discovered as far afield as California, British Columbia and Iceland, the fear has spread and the very future of nuclear power plants is being called into question.
At this precarious time in the evolution of nuclear energy, it seems incongruous, insensitive even for hearings by the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) on the future of the Darlington nuclear plant to proceed. The hearings were orchestrated to entertain concerns about the two new nuclear reactors planned for the Darlington nuclear facility and the refurbishment of ten reactors at the Darlington and Bruce Power stations. The project will cement the province’s reliance on nuclear power for the next 20 years. The proposed refurbishments were originally estimated to cost $6 billion, but have since ballooned to a mind-blowing $33 billion dollars; a sum that will double hydro bills by the time the project is complete. A number of NGOs and citizens have voiced their opposition to the project. Green Peace protestors chained themselves to tables in an attempt to delay proceedings until a full investigation into the disaster at Fukushima in Japan could be conducted. A Greenpeace spokesman, Shawn-Patrick Stencil said that the protestors wished to prevent the hearings as they were only being held to legitimate the process.
Their argument that opposition to nuclear power is not heard by local government holds weight. When the Canadian Safety Commission gave permission for 64 decommissioned steam generators to be transported through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence waterway to Sweden, massive protests ensued. Mayors from cities en-route and tribal chiefs opposed the initial shipment of 16 generators. The commission heard protests, but gave the green light despite the fact that no environmental assessment had been carried out.
Do the NGOs have a point? Are incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima unlikely or is nuclear power unsafe? Wade Allison, a nuclear and medical physicist from the University of Oxford, joins the ever-growing horde of proponents of nuclear power whose litany of assurances sounds remarkably like those issued by the Japanese government. The consensus is that the radiation, as a result of the Fukushima disaster, is not in levels that pose a danger to the public. This contradicts actions by the Japanese and American governments, who recently banned foodstuffs from the affected area and advised parents that the Tokyo water supply was not safe for consumption by minors. Allison argues that the fallout from Fukushima is only 1% that of Chernobyl. He says the acceptable rates of exposure are set too low at 1 mSv per year when a British person is already exposed to 2.7 mSv per year and that a cancer patient is exposed to 20 000 mSv to combat tumours. He suggests that the cells of cancer patients are able to regenerate and that this proves the body’s resistance to radiation. He also stated that no one died at Three Mile Island and that only 28 people succumbed at Chernobyl with a further 15 cases of childhood thyroid cancer which could have been prevented had the children been given iodine tablets.
Helen Caldicott, an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, cites a New York Academy of Science study which places the death toll of Chernobyl at over a million. Radiation is insidious and may take years or decades to appear as cancer, birth defects and diseases that are difficult to tie to the original exposure. She agrees with experts that claim that surface radiation is low and is akin to radiation experienced during an X-ray. However, this radiation is absorbed into plant and water ecosystems and, consequently, by the animals that live in these systems. These are ingested by humans with disastrous consequences; “A very very tiny amount can mutate a single regulatory gene in a single cell to give you Leukemia in five years, or cancer 15 years later.” said Caldicott. Mutations in ovaries and testes result in birth defects and genetic diseases, thereby passing the legacy of exposure to future generations.
Caldicott appeared at the Darlington hearings with stern warnings about the safety of nuclear power. She claimed that small amounts of radiation leech from nuclear plants increasing background radiation in the air and water around them. She also pointed out that nuclear power is touted as ‘clean’, but the mining and enrichment of uranium is a wasteful process that produces a plethora of greenhouse gases.
Safety is not the only argument against nuclear power in Ontario. A recent study by NC WARN showed that the cost of solar energy has dropped to less than 15₵/ kWh while nuclear power costs 20₵/kWh. This does not take into account the cost of refurbishment and construction of nuclear facilities in the province. This makes the actions of the McGuinty government and its stalwart support of the nuclear programme even more baffling. Solar has proven to be reliable and clean and no one has ever died of solar fallout.