Nuclear power in the Japan election: a return to the atom?

In 1997, Japan hosted a conference at Kyoto, in which most of the world’s industrialized countries agreed in principle to reduce their man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to roughly five percent below 1990 levels. Nearly 14 years later, Japan abruptly abandoned that goal after a tsunami of unprecedented power destroyed hundreds of communities along its northeast coast, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless. What did the March 2011 tsunami have to do with Japan abandoning its goals under the Kyoto Protocol? The tsunami also wrecked the backup cooling pumps at the Fukushima nuclear power plant; that caused three of the reactors to melt down. For reasons partly connected with crass domestic politics and partly with spinelessness in the face of uninformed nuclear hysteria in the mainstream media, the Japanese government of the day decided to shut all the country’s remaining 47 undamaged power generation reactors. Nuclear generators were up to then by far Japan’s biggest source of GHG-free power. The nuclear fleet remains shuttered even today, 646 days since the meltdowns, in spite of the fact that not a single person has died or even gone to the hospital because of radiation releases due to the meltdowns.

Japan’s panic flight from carbon-free nuclear necessitated a huge shift to carbon-heavy fossil fuels for electric power generation. Japan is after all a highly advanced industrialized society totally dependent on electricity. So, in the year from March 2011 to March 2012, Japanese fossil-fired power generators put an additional 66 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Japan’s abandonment of the Kyoto principles came also with a huge curtailment in the amount of electricity it uses. Prior to the tsunami of March 2011, Japan’s nuclear fleet generated around 290 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. In the year following the nuclear shutdown, fossil-fired generators managed only 113 billion kWh—a 177 billion kWh shortfall. That means that Japanese homes and businesses used much less power after March 2011.

Some would say that that is good, but it is not. Japan’s power shortfall was part and parcel of a general economic calamity. The country’s economy is in terrible shape compared with how it was previously. After nearly 50 years of huge trade surpluses, Japan now has an enormous trade deficit. This is no surprise when you consider that Japan imported most of the fuel it needed to generate those 113 billion kWh and exported much fewer of the cars, consumer electronics, semiconductors, and optical fibers that are the mainstay of its export sector because of the dearth of electricity. It is true that Japan also imported nuclear fuel (when its nuclear generators were running), but that is just the thing: fuel costs are much lower for nuclear power than for fossil-fired generation. That is in turn because nuclear reactors use extremely small amounts of physical fuel compared with fossil generators: nuclear fuel releases millions of times as much energy as fossil fuels, so you need far smaller amounts of it.

Japanese voters might not be as fixated on these details as I am. They probably have just felt the strain of electricity rationing, and have felt the effects in terms of fewer jobs as employers in export industries have had to cut back.

For this reason, they have just turfed out the DPJ, the political party that was in power when the tsunami struck on March 11, 2011 and overwhelmingly voted in the LDP, a party that has promised to restart the available nuclear reactors.

If the new government makes good on its pro-nuclear promise, then Japanese businesses will get the jump start they need; that will hopefully jump start the whole economy.

And the country can get back to making good on its Kyoto promise.

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James Greenidge
10 years ago

Seasons Greetings!

Whether it was because they voted so partly to save face supporting Kyoto than appear hypocrites shipping in oil or the fear of losing jobs, I’m pleased that SOME common sense is trickling down over there, and I hope the new PM follows up with some serious massive nuclear education to grind out all the FUD that’s hamstringing their own progress and national ambitions. It sounds crazy, but sometimes I wonder whether the average Japanese is really aware (or their media is so enlightening) of your statement “in spite of the fact that not a single person has died or even gone to the hospital because of radiation releases due to the meltdowns” and of deaths incurred by oil/gas failures in the same quake. If that’s not the best single affirmation of a rugged and forgiving power source despite a whale of a rare quake and tsunami, I don’t know what is.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

10 years ago

More countries need to realize that places like Japan and France were economic successes largely because of reliable and abundant energy provided by nuclear power. Industry has suffered drastically because of the over reaction to Fukushima. Why did Japan feel that they could meet the Kyoto in the first place. Because they were confident with statistics made possible by nuclear energy that they could meet the demands. Proof that they took the energy for granted. Nuclear runs so smoothly no one notices until you take it away or a rare once in a thousand year event like Fukushima occurs. I remember reading about earthquakes in countries where they frequently happen. They need to develop short memories to deal with the loss. Maybe we are witnessing this again. What they will do is forget about the heart breaking tragedy of a tsunami that they can’t do anything about. The Fukushima thing was overblown sensationalism and maybe they are starting to realize it.