Posted by debito on April 29th, 2011
Hi Blog. Here’s a very thoughtful article from Ottawa Citizen newspaper columnist Dan Gardner on why Japan took its nuclear route. Dunno why this guy knows so much about a topic otherwise so esoteric on the other side of the world (but good research should make that irrelevant anyway). People who know more about this subject are welcome to comment, of course, but Gardner answered a number of questions I had. Give it a read. Note the citation of our new Japanese citizen applicant Donald Keene (now literally one of the movers with the shakers; sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) on Japan’s economic and emotional fragility. Arudou Debito
Why Japan took the nuclear risk
When making choices about energy, there are no danger-free, cost-free solutions
BY DAN GARDNER, POSTMEDIA NEWS MARCH 18, 2011
The Japanese government undertook a rapid expansion of nuclear power after the oil shocks of the early 1970s to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy, despite the high earthquake risk in the region.
Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Now this. Within hours of the first reports of trouble at Japan’s nuclear power plants, calls for abolition could be heard around the world. “Time to shut down this nation’s nuclear energy program” wrote American pundit Keith Olbermann. Greenpeace and other environmental groups mobilized. “The nuclear risk is not a risk that can really be controlled,” said a French Green party politician. Nuclear power must go.
With Japan’s plants suffering explosions and officials struggling to avoid meltdowns, it’s hard not to agree. Nuclear power is a demonstrable hazard. In Japan, a land constantly rattled by seismic activity, where a disaster like Friday’s was literally just a matter of time, nuclear power is downright dangerous. Why risk it?
People who say that seldom mean it as a question. It’s a conclusion in drag. But let’s treat it instead as a genuine question. Why risk it? Why should we build and operate nuclear power plants knowing that they do pose real dangers, whatever the magnitude of those dangers may be?
And why, in particular, would Japan build nuclear power plants on land that so often buckles and heaves? The answer to this second question lies in recent history. It’s worth having a look because it’s also a pretty good answer to the first question.
As recently as the 1950s, Japan was a poor country with a huge and growing population. Some far-sighted experts looked ahead and saw misery and mass starvation.
But in the 1960s, Japanese manufacturing grew rapidly. Its success was based on keeping things cheap. Cheap labour. Cheap prices. Cheap quality. In the United States, the main Japanese market, “Made in Japan” meant the product cost little and was worth what it cost.
Japan got wealthier. Living standards improved.
In the late 1960s, the American economy stumbled and in 1971 the dollar was devalued. The yen shot up. But the quality of Japanese goods had improved and so Japanese manufacturing thrived despite the rising cost of its goods.
Nothing less than a miracle was underway. A nation was rising from poverty to the ranks of the wealthiest people on Earth. Some even imagined a day when Japan would lead.
Then, like an earthquake, the Arab oil embargo struck.
The Japanese miracle was built on a foundation of cheap energy -mostly oil, mostly from the Middle East. The oil embargo of late 1973 plunged the world into the frightening recession of 1974, and no one suffered worse than Japan.
“The recent period of Japanese glory, from 1969 to 1973, when it seemed a small, distant country would overtake the giants of the West, lasted longer than a dream, but it has ended with dramatic suddenness,” wrote Donald Keene, an American professor of Japanese culture, in the New York Times. It was March 3, 1974. “The same people who only a few months ago were talking and acting as if the future held unlimited possibilities of economic expansion now gloomily announce, not without a touch of masochism, that they live in a country completely at the mercy of others for survival.”
Many Japanese were sure their country would sink back into poverty. The old fears of mass starvation and environmental ruin returned. “Prophecies of disaster abound,” Keene noted.
The Japanese government responded with a sweeping, multi-pronged campaign to reduce Japan’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil. Conservation and energy-efficiency was a major component. So was a rapid expansion of nuclear power.
Of course the Japanese knew their seismological reality.
Indeed, Japanese earthquake science and engineering is the best in the world. But the Japanese also knew the danger of the status quo. It was a trade-off.
The transition worked. Japan’s rise resumed and within a decade it was one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It was also one of the most energy-efficient. And one of the top producers of nuclear power, with onequarter of its electricity coming from the plants the world is watching now. This story does not demonstrate that nuclear power is right for Japan, or anyone else. But it does show, I believe, that choices about energy always involve trade-offs.
Which risks are acceptable? How much risk? And what are we prepared to pay to avoid or mitigate threats? There are costs and hazards associated with every choice and so these questions are unavoidable. There are no risk-free, cost-free solutions.
Some deny this basic reality. Certain environmental groups claim to have plans which would allow us to do away entirely with coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power over the next several decades. Renewable energy would replace them all. The cost would be minimal. Indeed, it would spur innovation and produce millions of new jobs.
It would be wonderful if it were possible. Unfortunately, it’s not. One of the world’s leading energy experts, Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, has called these claims “not just naive [but] profoundly irresponsible.”
But Smil also criticizes those at the other extreme, who see nothing undesirable about the status quo and believe any significant shift to renewable energy would be prohibitively expensive.
We can do better. But it requires that we first understand basic realities, including the most basic: There are costs and risks in everything.