Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Electricity, gas, and Formaldehyde

Unless nuclear reactors in Japan are restarted in the near future, some very large chickens will be coming home to roost this summer. 

The economic impact upon the country is already very significant and will only increase in severity.  News like this announcement of a 4.4-billion-dollar gas deal with an Australian gas exporter probably sounds very good to the gas industry.  It's not so good news, however, for the Japanese public, faced with rising electricity costs, nor for struggling energy-intensive industries, and not very good at all for the global environment being flooded with a massive increase in CO2 emissions.

Even worse, the consequences of this self-enforced nuclear moratorium are not limited to environmental vandalism and high electricity bills.  There is a serious possibility that large areas of Japan will be faced with blackouts come the peak of electricity usage in summer.  Regardless of the expansion of fossil fuel-based electricity generation, the huge amounts of power created by the country's nuclear fleet is just too hard to replace.  As a consequence, 7 of Japan's 9 regions are being requested to meet new power-saving targets this summer to get by.  Most alarmingly the Kansai region with the major cities of Osaka and Kyoto is being asked to reduced household electrical consumption by 15% even though  last year, when similar conservation efforts were in place, household power consumption was reduced by only 4%.  Even then there were reports of elderly people dying from heatstroke when they cut down on or eliminated the use of airconditioning.

They better hope for a cool summer in Kansai.

Meanwhile there was a minor public health scare on the weekend when formaldehyde was found in some of the drinking water in Chiba, Saitama and Gunma prefectures.  Apparently some illegal dumping had been taking place upstream.  Although the level of contamination was under the threshold that could be dangerous to human health, drinking water was cut off in some areas as a precaution. 

Sound familar?  Funny that media interest seems to have died down, though.  There is no mention of the issue in today's Japan Times, let alone in international media.  I guess 'formaldehyde' just doesn't tick the same boxes as 'radiation'.  There's a lesson in the effects of news coverage upon people's perception of risk.

Personally when I see news of this kind I am heartened and reassured: naturally it is regrettable that chemicals get into the water supply, but I would much rather something got in the water and was detected by the authorities, than if something got in and it wasn't.  It tells me that people are doing their job, that public health is taken seriously and that the authorities that are responsible are trustworthy.  Who could not be reassured by that?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Electricity Price to go up!

Today TEPCO officially applied to the government for permission to raise house electricity prices in July by 10.28%.  Given that TEPCO has already received permission to raise prices for business and industry by 30%, it seems probable that this price rise will go ahead.  For the average household, this works out at about 480 yen extra a month.

Do I need to mention that this price rise is completely unnecessary?  TEPCO has stated that the money is needed to fund compensation for victims of the Fukushima accident, and to cover the costs of imported fossil fuels needed to cover the gap in electrical generation left by the closure of all of Japan's nuclear power plants.  However, as radiation around the Fukshima plant never hit levels that could affect human health, it is hard to see what people are being 'compensated' for.  And regarding the import of fossil fuels, there is no excuse for keeping Japan's nuclear fleet idling; all this achieves is to keep billions of dollars of infrastructure unused and thousands of people out of work.

The reason that nuclear power plants remain closed is because of significant (and misguided) public opposition.  But the reality is that, in terms of safety, nothing could be worse than leaving the nuclear power plants turned off, because the inevitable alternative, fossil fuel usage, is incredibly damaging in terms of global warming, air pollution.  Not to mention political destabilization.

It's incredibly disappointing that at time when the Japanese nation is facing such genuine and intractable problems as economic stagnation, demographic decline and political paralysis, that society is obsessing over an accident that, after all, killed or injured noone.

Electricity is an incredibly useful resource, and vital for improving living standards.  To restrict its use for no good reason seems criminal to me.  This applies to the globe as a whole as well as Japan.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Japan turns off its last nuclear power plant tonight

Tonight Japan has turned off its last remaining running nuclear reactor, at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido.

All of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are now standing idle.  And while they were switched off as part of regular maintenance schedules, none have been allowed to go back online as the government has come under strong pressure to keep them unused.

Prime Minister Noda has been working to get the first one back online, but there is significant resistance from some local governments; as yet the confrontation is unresolved.

The unnecessary mothballing of Japan's nuclear industry is having serious consequences.  Already, Japan's production of carbon dioxide has significantly risen as a result of using fossil fuels to cover the gap, thus contributing directly to global warming and putting at risk the global environment:

According to the Asahi Shinbun, the Japanese economy suffered its first trade deficit in over three decades as power producers spent billions of dollars on fossil-fuel imports to provide extra generating capacity.  Just as alarming, the coming summer is beginning to look like last summer, with enforced power conservation across the country, night-time factory operation, appeals to the public to conserve power and behind everything the crippling threat of blackouts if demand exceeds supply.

Incredibly, this weekend across the country there have been protests against nuclear power, and celebrating the shutting down of the last reactor.  After over a year of serious reflection and research, it is hard for me to view these protests as anything but demonstrations in support of human stupidity.  To me it is almost literally unbelievable that an accident which hurt or killed nobody could arouse such hatred.

It's an irony that Japan's new citizen-level activist movement is focused on combating something so harmless and beneficial as nuclear power.  And it's regrettable that such things as government paralysis, wasteful expenditure on public works, and Japanese society's penchant for painful and useless effort, all of which might be the targets of a real revolution, remain unaddressed, while people waste their self-righteous anger on something that actually makes the world a better place.