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Fallout from Japan's Nuclear Energy Crisis is Snowballing

The fallout from Fukushima is starting to snowball. Japan now has to make some decisions, namely whether to restart some of its nuclear plants or to rely more heavily on fossil fuels to cool homes this summer.

It depends on how the issue is framed and who is framing it. But it goes something like this: Proponents of restarting some of the nuclear facilities are saying that parts of the country will experience energy shortfalls, leaving not just homeowners to suffer but also the country’s economy as big businesses potentially compensate and reduce production. And, relying on fossil fuels will not just create more emissions but also increase energy costs for those same businesses and consumers.

Opponents of nuclear power power are saying that the way to avoid another disaster is to move on to cleaner energy. Adding renewables and energy efficiency measures would fulfill the energy promises, they say, and cost effectively. Japan, in fact, showed last summer in the early months following the March nuclear disaster that it could cut its consumption by 15 percent.

“You cannot substitute 30 percent of installed capacity overnight,” counters the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Secretary General Angel Gurria, in a Kyodo News interview. “As a condition of growth policy, you have to have sufficient sources of energy to fuel the economy, households, companies and infrastructure.”

Japan has a total of 54 nuclear reactors that did generate 30 percent of its electricity before the March 11, 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. All, except one, have been taken off line for safety inspections and upgrades -- moves that have been given the general approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, the one that remains will be taken off line May 5 for similar tests. For the first time since 1966, Japan will have no nuclear energy in use. Prior to the disaster, the country had planned to expand its mix of nuclear to 53 percent by 2030; it does not have any oil and gas of its own.

It’s uncertain which road Japan will take. In one region where nuclear provides almost half of the power, capacity could fall by 16-18 percent below the peak demand. If they import fossil fuels, electric rates could skyrocket.

“I have to say we are facing the risk of a very severe electricity shortage,” says Japanese Trade Minister Yukio Edano, the UPI reported. The official government position is to review each current unit and determine if it could be started. The prime minister’s office is also asking that two such reactors begin revving up this summer to meet high demand.

Critical Choice

It’s difficult to see how Japan’s nuclear energy program would ultimately fade away. It is not just a function of meeting energy requirements but also one of maintaining economic order. That is, the nuclear-based utilities there cannot just evaporate while their employees either retire or find new jobs.

Importing fossil fuels from abroad would be a temporary solution. But oil and natural gas are volatile commodities that are tied to world markets where prices have been rising in the wake of rising Middle Eastern tensions. 

And while Japan would like to raise its green energy mix from 9 percent today 21 percent by 2030, that would still not make up for the loss of nuclear. Having said that, major companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi are investing in wind, solar and smart grid technologies.

Since Fukushima, Germany, which gets 23 percent of electricity from nuclear energy, has had a change of heart. It says that it will stop producing such power in a decade. Meantime, Great Britain and Russia have said that they will advance their nuclear energy programs while France must await the outcome of national elections there this month. Right now, it relies on nuclear power to meet 80 percent of its electricity production.

"Many among the G8 think that there is no alternative to nuclear power, even if we are convinced of the need to develop alternative energy, renewable energy," says French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Nuclear energy will continue to provide a stable source of power for many industrialized nations, although it may shrink its presence in certain places. The global community, generally, must now choose whether to expand such production or to invest elsewhere. Room will exist for all energy forms, particularly for next-generation nuclear reactors that are more efficient and that have added safety features.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein


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