Or so the saying goes, and Japan has been in crisis mode for much of the last year. That said, while radioactive contamination fears remain, and economic downturn is causing some pain, you could be forgiven for thinking that the impact of the March 11, 2011 triple-disaster on the country has been negligible. Life seemingly rolls on as normal.
I don’t say that lightly mind you, particularly given the tragic loss of life during the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the ongoing threat to health from radiation exposure. But only three of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors remain online, and come April, there very well may be no nuclear plants running at all, and the impact on society here will remain all but invisible.
Sure, some of the bright advertising lights of Tokyo have been dimmed to conserve power, and some large companies are complaining of increased energy costs, but in a country built on huge power excesses, where there’s a vending machine serving hot or cold drinks on virtually every street, and heated toilet seats in almost every home, there are many places power savings can be made without hurting standard of living.
Increased costs for business shouldn’t be shrugged off of course. People need jobs, and as a huge importer of goods to support its way of life Japan needs to power its business and manufacturing sector. However, for 90% of Japan’s manufacturing sector, energy costs make up a mere 3% of total production costs. No one wants to pay more, but increases in energy prices are hardly a show-stopper, and could be solved relatively fast by more aggressive energy efficiency measures and utilisation of Japan’s barely-tapped renewable potential.
But back to this amazing situation with nuclear power: This time last year, around 30% of Japan’s energy came from nuclear. Given this source of energy has disappeared virtually overnight and there have been no significant problems for society the question must be seriously asked: does Japan really need nuclear?
It certainly isn’t needed in the long-term, as Japan’s population is expected to drop by more than a third by 2060. Averaged out, that’s around 875,000 less people using energy every year for the next 48 years, which makes the governments recently announced plans to extend the lifetimes of nuclear plants and allow them to keep working at the ripe old age of 60 years in one of the most seismically active countries on earth old beyond a little ridiculous.
Speaking of quakes, the University of Tokyo's Earthquake Research Institute is strongly predicting that there is a 70% risk of another severe earthquake striking within four years, and a 98% chance of it happening within 30 years. This not only makes restarting reactors a risky proposition for the stability of power supply and the economy, it keeps the threat of another Fukushima-like disaster unnecessarily hanging over the people of this country.
The nuclear lobby, big business, and the Japanese government are pushing hard to restart reactors claiming it is for the health of the economy, but while excess power once helped Japan grow rapidly, nuclear has not saved Japan’s economy from decline, and it’s not going to save it now. By remaining wedded to nuclear the government will be simply playing a game of dice with Japan’s economic future, and the health and safety of its people. It should instead be using this moment of upheaval to end its unhealthy relationship with nuclear utilities like TEPCO, and embrace energy solutions that will keep its people safe, help it stick to greenhouse gas reduction targets, and give its economy a huge boost with a green industry revolution.
The Fukushima disaster created a contamination crisis, but not an energy crisis. It kick-started an identity crisis, destroying Japan’s image as the poster child for a mythical clean and safe nuclear society, and turning it into yet another cautionary tale of the risks governments take on with atomic snake oil salesmen. But it’s not too late. With the remaining three reactors due to go into shutdown over the next month, a nuclear free summer approaches, and a nuclear free future awaits.