Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Japan Needs Electricity, Badly

It's been more than two weeks since the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami sent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant down for the count, and still the news is not good. For a few days there, after the power was reconnected to the pumps, I thought things were taking a turn for the better - but in some respects this is looking more and more like some kind of trainwreck in slow motion. I believe the most recent updates I encountered were that engineers are running out of, or have already run out of, places to store the now-radioactive seawater used as emergency reactor coolant, and that plutonium is leaching into the soil around the plant.

This is one of the biggest problems with nuclear energy - its psychological aspect. Major incidents are rare - this is only the second such in my lifetime, and the only one I can actually remember, despite the hundreds of nuclear reactors that have been in operation around the world during the course of the last twenty-eight years. Still, for every day that problems persist at Fukushima Daiichi, those persistent anti-nuclear memes get that much stronger.

But Japan initially developed a substantial nuclear power base for a very good reason: it doesn't have many other options. There are few rivers in those mountainous islands that can easily be dammed for hydroelectric power; not nearly enough to supply the electricity demands of 127 million people. Too, Japanese oil and coal reserves are limited if they exist at all, and to base the country's generation on those sources would leave it utterly dependent on imports. Wind and solar still have yet to become viable options for replacing base-load generating capability; back in the mid-20th century, they didn't represent even the shadow of an option.

So what are the Japan's options now, if it finds it really wants to step away from nuclear? Maybe they might build more natural gas plants... or maybe they'll go beyond, live up to the idea that they're decades ahead of the rest of the world. Maybe the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi will provide the needed impulse for Japan to build an orbital infrastructure for generating space-based solar power.

Artist's impression of a solar power satellite in orbit over Central America, courtesy NASA.

This isn't as science fictional as you think. While people have been speculating about the possibilities of solar energy collected in orbit and beamed to Earth-based receivers for seventy years or more, the state of the art has advanced to the point where it's possible to start actually thinking about this. In fact, JAXA - the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, its answer to NASA - currently has plans to orbit a prototype solar power satellite in 2020 and a full-power version in 2030. Granted, plans are just that; a couple of years ago, after all, NASA planned to have boots back on the moon eight years from now.

Nevertheless, while a human return to the moon does have significant psychological resonance and brings home the possibility of new and potentially lucrative research avenues - just how does the human body respond to sustained periods of low-g, anyway? - orbital solar power is one of those space applications that has direct and obvious utility. A future Japan supplied by power satellites wouldn't have to worry about a Fukushima-type disaster: earthquakes may be monstrous, but they can't reach orbit.

The biggest hurdle is, of course, the cost. But look at it this way - how much will Fukushima Daiichi cost, in the long run? How do you assign a cost to all that radioactive seawater, all the plutonium leaching into the soil, all the heightened health risks to people in the area? If the Japanese power grid isn't able to cope with this summer's demands because of the lack of Fukushima's electricity, how much is that worth?

Sure it's expensive. But so was throwing a lifeline to the parasites of Wall Street. I know what I'd rather have my money spent on.

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