Should Japan Restart it’s Reactors?
Japan was the third largest nuclear power in the world, with 50 operating reactors on March 10th, 2011. Then the 3/11/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit, leading to 3 meltdowns and 5 other reactors being crippled or permanently decommissioned. There are now 42 reactors in Japan which could theoretically be restarted. For technical and political reasons they have all been idle for the last year.
Should Japan restart these reactors? At first the answer might seem an obvious yes. These reactors represented almost 30% of the countries generating capacity. Without them, as the Abe government has claimed the economy will suffer as will the environment. Without them, as the nuclear utilities have claimed, there will be blackouts and brownouts. Except that has not been what has happened.
Despite a significant increase in fossil fuel use for energy generation, the total CO2 emissions have only increased minimally (on the order of 8% in 2010 to 2012). This is because overall energy use is way down through energy efficiency and conservation and CO2 emissions have also been mitigated by renewables coming online.
Nor has the Japanese economy crashed in response to the lack of nuclear power. In fact in 2012, the first full year after Fukushima, still reeling from the tsunami and earthquake, and with most of it’s nuclear fleet shut down, Japan had it’s highest recorded GDP ever.
How is this possible?
The short answer is Japan has dramatically changed it’s relationship with energy. In the last year when it has been fully nuclear free, it has put in place conservation and efficiency programs that are replacing 13 reactors worth of power. In addition generous feed in tariffs are inspiring both home owners and businesses to install renewable sources of energy and this has amounted to another 3 reactors worth of power being saved. At this rate in just 2 more years all the reactors capacity will be replaced. So given how the last few years have been, why don’t we just wait and see. As many other countries have delayed nuclear projects including Bangladesh, Jordan, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Vietnam.
So it turns out the not at all obvious answer (given the government and utilities misstatements) is that seismically and volcanically active Japan is better off leaving all it’s reactors turned off. It is better off economically, environmentally and in terms of energy services. This is also what 59% of the Japanese public want.
But, sadly, this is nothing like a done deal. These reactors represent hundreds of billions of dollars in investments for the nuclear utilities. The nuclear utilities and the Abe administration have no intention of giving them up without a fight. This is possibly the biggest industrial fight in the history of the planet. A back of the napkin calculation is that these reactors have several trillion US dollars worth of life in them. Only big wars are more expensive.
Much of the data and all of the charts for this report come from the excellent new Greenpeace “Nuclear Free Japan year one“