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?

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