Wednesday, March 21, 2012

saisho ni sekitan ga kesu

The lights are still on in Japan, but a year after Fukushima the question on everyone's mind is how best to keep them on. After experiencing such a massive shock to the system, the whole idea of nuclear power is being approached very skeptically in Japan; it's a vast change from before the tsunami, when government plans were for Japan to continue increasing the nuclear foundation of its generation capacity. Considering the incompetence with which Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner and operator of the Fukushima reactors, approached not only the disaster but disaster planning - ignoring or dismissing multiple opportunities in past years which, if implemented, could have prevented the meltdown - along with the dream of "absolute nuclear safety" being shattered in such a dramatic way, it's absolutely reasonable for people to have second thoughts. Of all the nuclear reactors in Japan, by the end of this month only the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant in Hokkaido will still be generating power, with the remainder suspended for checkups and stress-testing.

Utilities across Japan are, therefore, confronting hard choices: not only what to do to keep the lights on for the immediate future, but how to approach power generation in the years and decades to come. Earlier this week the Japan Times reported that the Kansai Electric Power Company, which supplies electricity to Japan's populous Kansai region partially from eleven nuclear reactors, is potentially facing demands from some of its shareholders - namely the cities of Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka - to phase out its nuclear generation capacity, accounting for nearly half of its total supply, and replace it with renewables.

When taken in isolation, this is a laudable goal; however, laudable goals don't easily translate into reality, and it's possible that the highly understandable reaction to the Fukushima disaster may end up worsening things in its own way.

The Tomari Nuclear Power Plant in Hokkaido. Photo by Mugu-shisai, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The nuclear power plants that supply the Kansai region are situated in Fukui Prefecture, on the coast of the Sea of Japan and about seventy kilometers as the crow flies from Kyoto. What's significantly closer is the northern coast of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan and a reservoir used by fifteen million people. A sufficiently bad nuclear accident could contaminate the lake - which, to me, is just another reason for safety measures at the existing plants to be beefed up. It's not as if the plants are going to be decomissioned tomorrow; hell, by the original schedules, Fukushima Daiichi was to have already begun the decomissioning process on the day the tsunami struck.

Japan is in a difficult place when it comes to nuclear power for the very reasons that led it to install nuclear power in the first place; it's a geographically small, relatively resource-poor country. Germany may be trumpeting the fact that it's shutting down all its reactors and increasing the presence of renewable power sources in its mix, but what tends not to be mentioned is how Germany is bringing more and more coal-burning power plants on line to fill the gap - which, if you care about air pollution and the increased deaths it absolutely causes or atmospheric emission of carbon dioxide, is a significant problem. It's hardly the "environmental" choice.

Fortunately, the mayors aren't pulling for coal - however, in addition to their drive for renewables, they want KEPCO to replace its nuclear reactors with liquefied natural gas power plants; granted, they're not as polluting as coal-burning plants, but they still pollute and still emit carbon dioxide.

My own view of this is simple - if KEPCO is to replace its reactors, it should first demonstrate that it's capable of replacing a substantial mix of its generating capacity... how fortunate for my argument that its mix also includes twenty thosuand megawatts worth of "thermal" generating sources. It's unclear which of these are coal-burning plants, since that lovely word "thermal" hides so much, but with more than a quarter of Japan's electricity coming from burning coal I don't think it's a much of a leap to suggest that at least some are.

So - let KEPCO first mothball its existing coal power plants, replacing them with renewables and - if necessary - LNG. If there aren't any problems with that kind of switchover, then the drive toward a local phase-out of nuclear would at least have the precedent of a functional solution. The real enemy here is coal; personally, I would much rather live next door to a nuclear power plant than even within sight of a coal-burner's smokestacks.

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