There ought to be a word for the kind of truth that is really just an oft-repeated lie. This kind of truth starts off as a bald-faced lie, then goes through a tortuous digestive process in the national psyche, accompanied by lots of cramps and gaseous emanations until it finally emerges as what should be called a truthturd. It then sprouts some lovely turd blossoms that fool enough people into accepting its virtue.
Cases in point: the Tokyo gubernatorial election of February 10th, 2014, and the notion that Japan is doomed to economic failure without nuclear power.
The election was seen as a sort of referendum on nuclear energy in Japan, and the pro-nuclear candidate “won” with a voter turnout that was less than 50% and less than a majority of those votes. The two anti-nuclear candidates had an almost equal number of votes as the “winner.” In a truly democratic system, the result would be thrown out and the election redone until the turnout was high enough to be considered a real reflection of the will of citizens. You could say the citizens were lazy and got the government they deserve, but Tokyo had just been hit with its worst snowfall in decades the night before. In addition, an intelligently designed electoral system would require a runoff to decide a winner with a majority of votes.
After the election results were in, TEPCO coincidentally announced a few days later that its data on some of Fukushima Daiichi’s radioactive leaks had been underestimated by half. Then it turned out that data on 167 samples dated as long ago as 2011 were underestimated because the instruments used maxed out below the actual levels. As was the case with the 2012 national election and the IOC decision on the 2020 Olympics, TEPCO held the bad news so as to not influence political decisions that might have unwelcome consequences for the company.
Also coming right after the election result was known, the press was full of stories about how the national government is now going to press ahead with nuclear reactor restarts by next summer. Everyone, including the journalists regurgitating the government line, seems to have forgotten that Japan now has a new and improved nuclear regulator that is, supposedly, totally independent of politics. Thus, nothing can be restarted if the NRA objects to restarts, and no politician could possibly pass judgment on things like seismic safety, the reliability of old infrastructure, re-education of personnel, or evacuation plans. Right?
The Yomiuri Shimbun ran a story that might as well have been a government press release. It reported, “The government aims to resume operations of nuclear power plants under the plan, after [NOT IF] their safety is confirmed by the ongoing screenings of the Nuclear Regulation Authority.” It is reported like a fait accompli, with the NRA and local prefectural approval assumed as a sure thing.
It must be kept in mind that the Yomiuri was the propaganda arm of the Japanese and American government in the 1950s when President Eisenhower was pushing “atoms for peace” and exports of American nuclear power technology. Nothing has changed. The Yomiuri report was bad enough, but that is not to say that it was much different than others. The New York Times went along for the ride as well.
The media, domestic and foreign, has dutifully reported the lie that Japan’s economy is getting hammered by the extra fossil fuel that electric utilities have to import now that their reactors are off. They fail to report that in the past nuclear accounted for only 20-30% of electricity production, and that the majority of fossil fuel imported is used for other purposes besides generating electricity (transport, industrial uses, heating, cooking). The data shows that the jump in total fossil fuel imports after the nuclear shutdown was about 10-15%, and this is an amount that could be cut with conservation, efficiency gains, and investment in renewables. Furthermore, because of demographics, the loss of dominance in technology exports, and jobs moving to cheaper countries, the economy was moving in a bad direction a long time before the 2011 disaster. It is disingenuous to now blame everything on the loss of nuclear power.
The mainstream view also talks about uranium as if it were a free domestic resource. If we consider energy created by unit of cost, uranium does have an advantage over fossil fuel. However, it still has a significant cost and it has to be imported, which means it doesn’t provide energy security, and it hurts the balance of trade just like fossil fuel imports. Besides the cost of uranium, nuclear energy has huge costs arising from construction, de-construction, insurance, security, and safety assurance. Building and operating a gas power plant amounts a fraction of the cost. Even though the continual cost of importing fuel is a burden, it is at least a cost that is born in the present and not foisted on future generations.
Consumers and businesses are supposed to be begging for the reactors to be turned back on because electric utilities are going to charge 20% more now, and this, apparently, is all because of the nuclear shutdown. Curiously, the 20% matches the 20% devaluation of the yen since Shinzo Abe introduced his “Abenomics,” which of course made imported fuel that much more expensive. And really, is the public supposed to believe that electricity cost is going to come down again after the nuclear reactors are switched back on? Is the Abe government that stupid? Do they think the public is that stupid? Or is the public really that stupid?
The cost of fossil fuel is actually only one of the many daunting costs that electric utilities are faced with. All of the nuclear power plants are being forced to meet new safety requirements. The upgrades are costly, and for some power plants they will be too costly, so safe operation will be deemed impossible. The Hamaoka NPP has built a new seawall as defense against tsunamis at a cost of $1.8 billion, yet there is still the possibility that the regulator will refuse to allow its restart. When the NRA or local governments refuse to allow restarts, utilities will have to pay for decommissioning costs. Then of course, there is Fukushima Daiichi, where the cleanup and compensation costs are growing all the time. Nuclear waste disposal, and the cost of future accidents are not even put into the calculation.
The government and the utilities are being utterly deceptive in failing to disclose how these costs make nuclear-generated electricity much more expensive than what consumers pay now in their utility bills, even with the rate increase included. It seems to be assumed that the government has paid and will always pay for the devastating costs of nuclear energy through general revenue. And general revenue is 50% borrowed money these days, so there's not much difference from the attitude toward nuclear waste. It only looks cheap because the deciders who are alive now will be dead in twenty years and not have to pay the price. The true costs–financial, ecological and moral–have been completely obscured.
The blog Peace and Freedom has some insightful quotes from Japanese officials who are propagating the fear of a nuclear shutdown, but the author failed to critically analyze the assumptions behind them. According to the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan, “… fossil-fuel imports would cause an outflow of national wealth equivalent to 0.6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.” The question to ask is how this tiny figure is supposed to be catastrophic, when it is well understood that energy consumption is an indicator of domestic economic activity and resources being turned into value-added goods that are exported. Fossil fuel imports have been the very basis of Japan’s economic miracle. If Japan can no longer work its manufacturing and exporting magic, it’s a sign of a deeper problem with creativity, innovation and competitiveness. It has nothing to do with nuclear energy.
Elsewhere in the article, Hirohide Hirai, director of policy evaluation and public relations at the Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry, is quoted as saying, “The reliance on the hydrocarbons makes Japan vulnerable from the energy-security perspective. You have to pay a lot, a lot, a lot for LNG imports. If something happens in the Strait of Hormuz today, that makes—oh, I don’t want to think about it.”
Yes, indeed, the world is a scary place. Why not repeat “a lot” just a few more times for us? Mr. Hirai’s horror story could give us all chills on a summer night and lessen the need of air conditioners. One can shudder and get scared about various man-made and natural disasters that would leave populations freezing in the dark, but invoking this “Strait of Hormuz” bogey man is an absurd way to debate energy policy. For one thing, Japan has other supply lines from Russia, North America and Indonesia. And, yes, Japan is very vulnerable to energy supply shocks, as many nations are. That’s just a part of the bargain a nation makes if it doesn’t want to have an 18th century lifestyle. Furthermore, even if every nuclear power plant in the country were operating, the loss of fossil fuel supplies would be more crippling to the economy than the loss of nuclear power. Fossil fuel is the only source of energy for airplanes, trucks and cars, most homes use it for heat and cooking, and it has always supplied (even at the peak of nuclear generation) about 60% of electricity.
The claim that nuclear energy is cheap, green and essential is an utter falsehood, perpetuated by some people who know it, and by others who are too dim to understand the nature of the monster they have created. Who in his right mind in this land of earthquakes and volcanoes, after all that has happened at Fukushima Daiichi, would switch on another nuclear reactor? It's time for everyone to stop and listen to the voices from Chernobyl, like the one who said, “They grabbed God by the beard, and now he’s laughing, but we’re the ones who pay for it.”
“10 N-reactor restarts sought by summer.” The Yomiuri Shimbun. February 10, 2014. http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001019352.
Martin Fackler. “Nuclear Issue in Limbo as Indecision Grips Japan.” The New York Times. February 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/12/world/asia/nuclear-issue-in-limbo-as-indecision-grips-japan.html.
“More Record High Radiation Readings at Fukushima Daiichi.” SimplyInfo. February 13, 2014. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=12348
Svetlana Alexievich. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997, published in English by Picador in 2006).
John E. Carey (editor). “Why Japan Can’t Quit Nuclear Power.” Peace and Freedom: Policy and World Ideas. February 16, 2013. http://johnib.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/why-japan-cant-quit-nuclear-power/.