Japan is re-starting its first nuclear reactor since it decided to shut down all fifty of them in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. As workers began getting the reactor ready, hundreds of protestors gathered outside to voice disapproval for the Abe administration’s return to the controversial energy source. The WSJ reports:
Kyushu Electric Power Co. began removing control rods from the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai nuclear power plant in southern Japan at 10:30 a.m. local time. The company said the reactor should begin generating electricity by the end of the week and resume commercial operation by early September following inspections. The plant’s second reactor is scheduled to be brought back online later this year. […]
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government have said they want the reactors back online to cut the nation’s dependence on imported energy. In July, the industry ministry approved a new target that calls for nuclear to account for as much as 22% of the nation’s electricity by 2030. Clean-energy sources will account for up to 24%, according to the program. […]
Polls, however, have shown that a majority of Japanese oppose the restarts, and the issue has been a factor in driving down Mr. Abe’s approval ratings. Critics cite the environmental risks in a nation prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In addition, efforts to clean up the Fukushima plant and other heavily contaminated areas have been mired by repeated radiation leaks and other issues. The cleanup is expected to take decades as tens of thousands of residents remain displaced.
Nuclear energy made up 30 percent of Japan’s energy mix pre-Fukushima. The country incurred enormous costs trying to make up the energy deficit it incurred by shutting down all of its reactors. It leaned heavily on imports of natural gas, which replaced 44 percent of nuclear’s former contributions but only at great cost, as a lack of pipeline capacity forced Japan to import the more expensive LNG. The region’s LNG spot prices spiked, and the Japanese economy reeled. It is in this context, and with the knowledge that Japan lacks sizable fossil fuel reserves of its own, that Shinzo Abe made the choice to champion the reopening of Japan’s shuttered reactors. But the vociferous anti-nuclear demonstrations and polling data suggest it was not an easy decision politically.
Every energy source entails risks (even those favored by environmentalists). The best we can do is minimize the chance of something going wrong. With nuclear power, the chance of catastrophe is extraordinarily small, but the potential ramifications of the worst-case scenario are enormous—much larger than, say, a fire at a coal plant.
For this reason it’s extremely important to site these facilities intelligently. Unfortunately for the Japanese, there aren’t many places that post greater risks to these plants than the Land of the Rising Sun. Situated on the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, Japan is subject to large-magnitude earthquakes, resultant tsunamis, and volcanic activity to boot. It’s not hard to see why the Japanese public is approaching the issue of a nuclear restart with an abundance of caution.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world supposedly green-minded Germany also chose to close its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Berlin’s decision, however, illustrates the other side to this debate. Germany, which doesn’t straddle a dangerous tectonic boundary, has little to fear by way of tsunamis and earthquakes—and yet a nuclear disaster caused by them shuttered an entire industry. Prudence and sober risk analysis gave way to misguided fear-mongering.
Japan has a difficult road ahead, and world-class safeguards will have to accompany any kind of sustained nuclear restart. There, the nuclear industry is making a lot of progress, especially in its next generation of thorium and molten salt reactors, which incorporate fail-safe designs. For the rest of the world—well, let’s hope it doesn’t draw the wrong lessons from the Japanese experience.