Japan On the Way to Reinstate Nuclear Program: No Room for Mistakes

On 11 March 2011, the massive earthquake and tsunamis that hit various areas of Japan – causing a nuclear meltdown in some parts of the country – bent the population on its knees and brought the nation’s nuclear program to an end.  Currently, the new government is seriously considering to slowly reinstate it, at the order of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA). They might have a point to restart the program, or they also could be completely insane to do it, but the case needs to be investigated both environmentally and economically to be fully understood, especially since those two aspects are usually ignored.

The worlds largest nuclear energy power plant in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Japan (IAEA, 2009)
The worlds largest nuclear energy power plant in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Japan (IAEA, 2009)

The prime context to consider is that after the tsunamis the Japanese government guaranteed the closure of the nuclear program, and it suddenly had to face its options, namely to import huge levels of oil, coal and gas, and to put these electricity-producing industries back on the grid. As such, two big arguments against retaking the nuclear are:  the nightmare of March 2011 and its possible re-occurrence, and the needless use of nuclear energy, since Japan’s economy was expanding more rapidly than any other G7 at the beginning of 2013.

To revisit the situation, the questions are firstly whether Japan has coal, gas and oil to rely upon – and the answer is, No. Then, whether it owns reliable renewable energy producing facilities – and again I must say, No. We’re not talking about China here, which – as one of the largest countries on earth – has more or less the resources for a well-balanced energy mix. Japan on the other hand has two long coasts, big rural areas and a lot of already-setup nuclear facilities.

The renewable energy feed-in-tariff they have set up will surely help the energy mix, but in the meantime, energy prices must be put higher to reflect the new cost of importing and establishing, or re-establishing, energy generation facilities. Since the economic growth slowed significantly by the end of 2013, and a recent tax hike has been set into place for consumers, energy prices are becoming detrimental to the economy.

As such, reopening a big part of the nuclear facilities, only on the west coast, could provide with a respite in energy prices, it would allow Japan to grow its economy at a faster pace, as it’s still recovering. Most of the economic arguments against nuclear energy lie on the construction and decommissioning phases, the first of which is not an issue, and the plans for the second have been praised internationally by the IAEA especially for its proactivity.

As an aside, before March 2011, the total capacity of Japan’s nuclear energy was at 52,994 MW. By reopening all but the eastern coast nuclear plants, their capacity will fall to 34,527 MW (65% of total). This level is by wrongly assuming that it’s possible to reopen all of them apart from the unsafe, as each need to pass seismological, economic, logistical and political tests before being allowed to reopen. It’s estimated that restarting the nuclear programme will provide around 10% of the energy mix instead of the 30% of its heyday.

To achieve this reopening, they will have an extremely thorough knowledge on risk management and communication as well as on the assessment process, and they will have to plan ahead any different types of risk, especially by creating detailed evacuation plans. A lot of work needs to be done before anything happens, but the economic argument continues to gain traction, especially when it is put in conjunction with the targets set by Japan to reduce levels of CO2.

The environmental argument against nuclear energy comes in the form of nuclear waste and of a Fukushima or Chernobyl scenario. By testing the sites for possibilities of seismic activity and the use of the newest (much safer) technologies, those concerns have been mitigated. This mitigation will have to be excellently analysed, planned for and communicated. It’s against this problem that most political opposition and pressure comes, as public perception is extremely reticent on it (with a lot of reasons), and as such the level of assuredness any plan to mitigate needs to be checked and rechecked.

There is still no convincing and proven option to dispose of or use nuclear waste. While avoiding the worst-case scenario has many tools to be tackled with, there are fewer to tackle this one. A past popular option was to pay countries with a lot of space and little care for people to bury it in their territory, with some security measures.

But there is also an environmental argument in favour of nuclear, as way too many people in the lobby try to lump it in with renewables by calling them sustainable fuels. It’s technically correct, but with the lines between that definition and renewable energies being so blurred among public perception, it is also deceptive.

That aside, nuclear energy is CO2 neutral, meaning that using it will also allow Japan to continue cutting CO2 in the atmosphere in an attempt to reach their targets, which they cannot otherwise. The advantages of pursuing those targets will include many from decreasing health problems arising from smog to the extreme of reducing extreme weather conditions, which will be detrimental to the whole country including the reactors.

I am in no way a full proponent of nuclear energy; personally I rather see it as a stumbling block for renewable energy’s investments. But similarly I am not fully against it either, and with Japan having the infrastructure in place and actually suffering by not using it, it does make a lot of sense for a heavy appraisal and partial reopening of this infrastructure to be conducted. There are heavy economic benefits to it, and not insignificant environmental ones. But in the light of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, if anything is to be achieved, it needs to be handled with utmost care and confidence. There is no space for mistakes, as the safety of the population comes before economic security. But with the first ensured, the second will be on everyone’s mind.

 

Benjamin Tirone Nunes

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