January 21, 2012 in Asia
by: Hugo Polanco
There is a giant radioactive monster roaming Japan. It has devastated portions of the country three times before and now looms in many Japanese citizens’ nightmares. No this monster is not the man in costume Godzilla but nuclear power. Japan has a history with nuclear power unlike any other nation on Earth, they were subjected to the only two nuclear attacks ever conducted. To say the least they have been sensitive to this form of energy ever since. Despite this sensitivity nuclear power was the only viable option to meet Japan rocketing energy needs during its post-war meteoric rise to economic giant. This was a clear decision to accept the risks of nuclear power and it’s unpleasant history for country in order to achieve prosperity. The result is that Japan relies on 50 some nuclear power plants to meet 30% of its energy needs and had planned to expand the use of nuclear power in the future. That means that except for France no other country relies as much on nuclear power.
Fast forward half a century through economic rise and subsequent stagnation and Japan finally came face to face with the consequences of their nuclear program. It came in the form a terrible earthquake and tsunami that crashed into the northern Japanese coast March of last year. This quake and tsunami left thousands dead as well as causing massive material destruction. The Fukushima Daiichi plant was in the path of the destruction and when the power grid shut down and diesel generators failed, some of the plants cores melted down spewing radioactive steam into the atmosphere. Out of this tragedy a national debate has emerged over the future of nuclear power.
Japan now faces another decision similar to their post-war decision to embrace nuclear power. The Japanese public is understandably upset by the tragedy and has pressured the government to steer away from nuclear power. This however may not be the best option. Like half a century ago there is no viable replacement for nuclear power. Renewable sources such as wind or solar are not ready yet to meet the energy demands of Japan and fossil fuels would only replace one potentially dangerous power source with pollution and environmental degradation.
To assuage the concerned citizenry, Japan has idled most of the nuclear plants. This has caused an energy shortage that has caused Japan’s economic growth to stall for the second year in a row as well as increased Japan’s trade deficit. This tragedy however may best be explained not by blaming nuclear power itself but the lax regulations governing the use of nuclear power in Japan. In Japan the nuclear industry and government regulators have long had an incestuous relationship, that has resulted in a string of accidents of which the Fukushima Daiichi incident is but the latest. This current slow down and idling of powerplants thus cannot be avoid. The public is understandably concerned with the safety of these plants and distrustful of previous inspections. The idled plants are currently being subjected to a barrage of stress tests to ensure they can all withstand an earthquake like the one that damaged the Fukushima plant.
Challenging and breaking the cozy relationship between industry and regulation seems like the path to go rather that a wholesale abandonment of nuclear energy. This whole crisis has only revealed that the only thing more toxic that the nuclear fuel powering these plants is Japan’s disfunctional political system.