Japan is prone to major earthquakes and buildings and other structures are designed accordingly. As was well demonstrated with this massive magnitude 9 quake, they had done very well in this regard, with few major building collapses. Otherwise the death and injury toll, bad enough as it was, would have been far worse.
However, the tsunami added an extra dimension for structures on the coast, which is where most of Japan’s nuclear plants are located. The plants at Fukushima clearly didn’t fare so well — precipitating the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
There were warnings about nuclear safety issues prior to these events. The major seven reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex in central Japan was hit by a Richter scale 6.8 earthquake in July 2007, which fortunately only led to a relatively small radioactive leak into the sea.
However, these events reveal more than just technological failures. The problems in the nuclear sector also reflect major institutional and political fault lines.
In 2003 Tokyo Electric Power was forced to close all 17 of its reactors after it admitted it had tried to conceal reports of cracks for 15 years. After the 2007 episode, all seven plants were closed and a review of others plants around the country was initiated.
Most of Japan’s 55 reactors are only designed to withstand quakes of 6.5 — and, of course, it’s not a linear scale, every unit increase in the Richter scale is 10 times more in energy effect terms. An earlier proposal to raise the standard above magnitude 7.1 was shelved because of the high costs.
Japan’s Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center commented “Japan is simply too quake bound to operate nuclear plants,” but little changed, with the result that we have now had a major nuclear disaster.
Hundreds of workers have been exposed to high levels of radiation, tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated and terrified by fear of contamination. The situation is still ongoing (with the waste pools now a major focus of worry), but, unless things go from bad to even worse, the final death and injury toll may end up being small compared to that from the quake itself.
However, the tragic events are likely to lead to changes in energy policies in Japan and elsewhere. If Japan can’t run nuclear plants safely, who can?
Germany immediately closed down eight older nuclear plants.
China halted its nuclear programme for a review (it currently gets 2% of is electricity from nuclear and was planning to expand that to 4% by 2020), and reviews were set up in most other countries.
In Japan we can expect a period of blaming and shaming- and, hopefully, a new approach. A 2008 US Embassy Cable recently released by Wikileaks reported outspoken criticisms of the existing approach from Lower House Diet Member Taro Kono, with the Japanese bureaucracy and power companies seen as ”continuing an outdated nuclear energy strategy, suppressing development of alternative energy, and keeping information from Diet members and the public”.
Kono claimed that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) was committed to advocating nuclear energy development, despite its problems, and although METI claimed to support alternative energy, in actuality it provided little. He claimed that METI in the past had “orchestrated the defeat of legislation that supported alternative energy development, and instead secured the passage of the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) act,” which simply required power companies to purchase a very small amount of their electricity from alternative sources. He also said that “the subsidies were of such short duration that the projects have difficulty finding investors because of the risk and uncertainty involved”.
He provided a specific example of how renewables were sidelined, noting that “there was abundant wind power available in Hokkaido that went undeveloped because the electricity company claimed it did not have sufficient grid capacity”. But in fact there is “an unused connection between the Hokkaido grid and the Honshu grid that the companies keep in reserve for unspecified emergencies”.
How much energy could Japan get from wind and the other renewables?
Although renewables have been downgraded over the years, Japan is still one of the leaders in solar PV production and it has large offshore wind, wave and tidal stream potentials, plus many other renewable energy options. A study for Greenpeace in 2003 suggested that, if energy efficiency was properly addressed, Japan could make a full transition to clean, renewable energy “without any sacrifice in living standards or industrial capacity”. (www.energyrichjapan.info)
Since 2003, renewables energy technology has developed rapidly with several scenarios now suggesting that renewable energy, backed up by energy efficiency, could supply nearly 100% of global energy, not just electricity, by 2050, if there was proper support.
Japan represents one of the hardest places to make such a transition, since it currently imports nearly all its energy (oil, gas, coal), but the disaster at Fukushima may mean that at last support will be provided for a major change in direction, towards a climate-friendly non-nuclear future.
However, as elsewhere, that won’t be automatic: it will have to be fought for, against those with vested interests in the current approach.
• Dave Elliot is the editor of Nuclear or not? Does nuclear power have a place in a sustainable energy future? (Palgrave, 2007)
Japan union solidarity
• The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has a page with extensive information on the earthquake, tsunami and what followed. You can send messages of solidarity from their website.
• Public Services International (PSI) has also issued a statement and has set up an aid fund to which unions can donate.
• The ICEM, which represents chemical, energy and mine workers — whose members are currently involved in the efforts to prevent catastrophes at the nuclear power stations — has a web page with details on how to pass on donations directly to the Japanese unions, who have set up a special bank account for this purpose.
• The International Metalworkers Federation also has detailed information on how your union can donate money directly to the Japanese unions and has issued a statement.
• Education International has set up a Japan earthquake and tsunami fund to which unions can contribute.
• The IUF (global union for the food and hotel sector) has sent a circular to all its affiliates which includes an email address in Japan to which solidarity messages may be sent — firstname.lastname@example.org.
• If your union is affiliated to one of the global union federations listed above (and it probably is), please check out what they are doing and how your union can be involved.
From Labour Start: www.labourstart.org