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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Restarting Japan’s Nuclear Plants Causes Hyperventilated Opining


In the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, many people missed an important lesson staring them in the face.  Nuclear power’s CO2 emissions are small in comparison to fossil fuels, there is no doubt.  But safe nuclear energy is very expensive.  Japan has to decide which goals it wants to attain.  Do the Japanese want carbon-free energy, cheap energy, or safe energy?

I read an article at Grist that takes the new Japanese Prime Minister to task over his desire to restart Japan’s off-line nuclear power stations.  I doubt that Susie Cagle has to find a way to deliver power to an industrialized island nation with no energy resources of its own, which allowed her to take this tack.  The title of her post is misleading or biased, take your pick.  Fukushima isn’t damned in this decision:

The newspaper said making the necessary upgrades to meet the proposed guidelines would cost plant operators about $11 billion, in addition to improvements already made after the Fukushima accident. The agency has said the new guidelines will be finalized and put in place by July 18.

$11 billion to meet new guidelines doesn’t come across as ignoring Fukushima’s lessons.  The fundamental flaw in Cagle’s argument is an incorrect interpretation of risk.  How many nuclear power plant disasters has the world suffered?  How many plant-hours have those plants operated?  What is the ratio of disasters to operating hours or Giga-watts of electricity produced for people?  Astoundingly low.  How many people are killed in Japan or the US by motor vehicles per year?  Fatalities decreased to 36,000 in 2009, if you’re curious.  What replacement technology does Cagle and other anti-nuclear advocates propose?  Because one technology kills people every day while the other does not.

How will Japan replace 33% of its electricity generation if it keeps all of its nuclear power plants offline?  Natural gas has replaced nuclear since Fukushima, which still releases CO2 into the atmosphere and requires drilling and transport.

The Japanese government’s handling of nuclear safety was and is an issue (corruption infests regulation enforcement).  But Cagle’s article didn’t discuss the causes behind Fukushima (besides using nuclear at all) or offer solutions – about either nuclear safety or energy policy.  Does she really expect Prime Minister Abe to try to convince the Japanese people they shouldn’t have electricity or they should pay more for their energy when viable technologies are at hand?

Also missing from the article was the following.  As Japan and Germany add to CO2 concentrations by closing nuclear power plants and burning more fossil fuels, Japan’s coast faces rising sea levels in a warming world.  Cagle could have discussed the need to add sea-level change projections into Japan’s nuclear energy policy as they strengthen infrastructure.  How many additional billions of dollars might the Japanese need to spend to handle climate change effects?


3 thoughts on “Restarting Japan’s Nuclear Plants Causes Hyperventilated Opining

  1. Nice to see you tackling such a controversial issue, [real name redacted to protect identity].

    As you know, I have “come-out” as pr-nuclear on my blog – but only because I think it will be essential if the requirement is to provide power to several billions of humans in the long term. I have also “come-out” on my blog as thinking it more likely-than-not that Nature will soon intervene to wipe out billions of people (possibly making nuclear power unnecessary and unobtainable). In the interim, however, Japan remains the worst place on the surface of the planet (apart from California) to be dependent on Nuclear power (California isn’t).

    However, Japan is not blessed with many alternatives; so it must therefore do more to ensure that nuclear is as safe as it can be. As such, since there will be more tidal waves in the near future (plate tectonics makes this a dead certainty), Fukushima was a wake-up call.

  2. My own views have evolved on this topic. I am “pro-nuclear” up to the point that people acknowledge the large, unique financial costs associated with the technology. Reasonable safety regulations need to be implemented and maintained without the taint of corruption. Nuclear energy’s costs differ from that of fossil fuels, where massive externalities are placed on publics. Leveraging the risk argument of the post, nuclear energy generates some potential risk to people while fossil fuels generate actual risk every day they’re used. That said, for the foreseeable future, nuclear energy will be a part of our energy portfolio. If people want to pay the costs associated with nuclear risk, they should decide to do that on individual bases, but that needs to happen in a very transparent way. I don’t think, for instance, the federal government should assume the multi-billion dollar insurance cost of each plant as a way to circumvent individual choice. By the same token, the multi-billion dollar cost associated with fossil fuels should not be externalized to other economic sectors. In a free market, actors know the true costs and make decisions based on those costs. If fossil fuels cannot compete, they should not compete.

    I split with you on Nature’s intervention. At this point, I don’t think billions of people will be wiped out. Substantial social and ecological change is likely to take place however. Once one individual is negatively affected by climate-related changes, societies need to take note. As more people are increasingly affected, societies need to shift what business-as-usual means.

    • I don’t think we are so far apart; and I apologise for having used emotive and/or apocalyptic language. However, the point I meant to convey is that without both nuclear and fossil fuel energy, I do not see how the Earth can support anything more than pre-Industrial numbers of human beings: Renewable energy infrastructure requires massive material and energy inputs to create it and, because of its low energy conversion efficiency, we will need an awful lot of it to support current or projected global population.

      The logical inference of all of this is therefore that population numbers must inevitably fall. This will be undoubtedly be very unpleasant; but it will not necessarily be sudden: First will come service disruption, then civil disorder, then migration and then systemic failures… The beginning of problems may well be less than 5 years away but they will take decades to be resolved. Jared Diamond painted the picture very clearly a few years ago, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

      Sadly, I see no reason to doubt Diamond’s prediction that, when the problems become obvious, governments will move to preserve their authority and control (rather than tackle the root cause of the problems). Indeed, I think we can already see this happening in a variety of places around the World. Therefore, like you say, or appear to suggest, I think the problems will not be tackled in advance; we will only tackle them as they emerge.

      This is what is so insidious about the positive feedback mechanisms the IPCC has so studiously ignored: They could very quickly cause rates of change (in Temperature and/or Sea Level to exceed our capacity to adapt; and they will certainly cause the cost of effectively and timely adaptation to increase.

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