Hollow arguments for continuing with nuclear energy in Japan

A large chunk of habitable and arable land in Northern Japan has been rendered unusable by what is, by some standards of measurement, the worst nuclear, industrial and environmental accident ever. A much larger area of the country has been contaminated with levels of fallout that leave it questionably habitable but undeniably degraded. Yet incredibly, the government and public opinion is still not quite sure if nuclear energy should be abandoned. The common argument is that the dangers of global warming force Japan to stay on the nuclear path, but this is an erroneous assumption for many reasons.

If Japan wants to consider global warming, it has to think about the situation globally. Japan has proven to the world that it is incapable of managing nuclear energy safely. It shouldn’t be given a second chance to prove itself in this regard. In fact, its past safety lapses would really make this something like its 10th chance, depending on how one rates the safety record. At this point it is not only the antinuclear forces that would like to see Japan abandon nuclear energy. It might also be the global nuclear industry itself that would like to have this embarrassing actor leave the nuclear stage. The IAEA leadership is too diplomatic to criticize members, and they all have their own record of imperfections, but we can hope that behind the bland IAEA statements made to save Japanese face, there is finally a realization emerging that nuclear plants should not be built in seismic zones, and all of Japan is a seismic zone. In fact, as this map shows, most of the world's nuclear plants have, sensibly, not been built in areas of known seismic activity.

If nuclear energy really is necessary to forestall global warming, then a globally planned use of nuclear energy would see that countries that are prone to earthquakes could continue to use fossil energy while nuclear reactors were operated safely elsewhere. This could be done in a way that still led to a global decline in fossil fuel consumption.

In any case, Japan may not have a great need for energy in the future. It’s population is declining, and industrial production was shifting overseas before the Fukushima disaster. It somehow managed to get through the summer of 2011 with almost no nuclear power being used. With a modest conservation attempt and rapid restart of fossil fuel generators, it did just fine. In the future, it will make further gains through solar and other emerging technologies.

The real reasons that Japan is slow to admit the end of its nuclear era are likely bureaucratic inertia, pride and investments in a technology that was supposed to be the way of the future. Japanese corporations are heavily invested in promoting reactor sales in Japan and abroad, and they resent having their plans disrupted by the incompetence of TEPCO in its misuse of a forty-year-old reactor design.

But the greatest fear is probably that no player in the nuclear game wants to face up to the back end cost of nuclear energy. The utilities never charged for this in their rates, and they haven’t put money aside for it, even though they knew that nuclear plants would need to be decommissioned after forty to sixty years of operation. Utilities all over the world have just kicked this cost down the road, hoping that the cost would be shifted to government budgets. Even if TEPCO had put money aside for decommissioning, the company would now have to spend it all on compensating the victims of their negligent crime.

The cost of decommissioning is huge, and there is no market demand for it. When consumers buy kilowatts they get something that they can use, but there is nothing for consumers to gain from in the billion dollar teardown of an aging reactor. The fact is that ratepayers and taxpayers of today will need to be forced to pay for the electricity sold too cheaply in the past. A nice gift for the generation that had not even been born at the time national policy went down the nuclear road. 

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