One of our fathers had a sign in his garage: “If you don’t have time now to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”
That line comes to mind with the latest energy news from Japan, which is embarking on a massive switch in its energy policy, on the fly.
Once the proud operator of 52 commercial nuclear reactors, as of Saturday Japan has none at all in service. But the fact that all of Japan’s reactors are off-line isn’t so much a deliberate choice as a decision by default. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese public has quite understandably turned against nuclear power, and the government has dropped plans to expand nuclear energy from 30 percent to 50 percent of the nation’s electricity supply.
The real reason for the fast shutdown, however, is that as the reactors are taken down for routine maintenance, there’s been too much opposition from the public and local governments to restart them. So a series of local decisions has added up to a national policy.
We’re not going into the arguments for and against nuclear power here. We’re interested in the implications when a nation takes 30 percent of its electricity supply out of the picture. (Just to put that in perspective, nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States). Japan has stumbled into an energy crisis, and what happens there has real implications for the rest of the world. Some of the trends to watch include:
Will the lights stay on? Japan has been struggling with power shortages since the 2011 tsunami, rushing to bring old oil and gas plants back online and promoting energy conservation. As the peak summer electricity season approaches, however, it’s still an open question whether Japan is going to be able to cover its power needs.
If it can’t, that may turn around public opinion sufficiently to bring some reactors back on line. There are also serious implications for the broader Japanese economy here. Electricity is a basic commodity, and nations that can’t keep the lights on don’t keep factories for long.
On the other hand, if Japan can keep the lights on, then it’s quite possible that this on-the-fly energy policy will become the future. Those reactors won’t be needed, and may never come back.
Can Japan get off fossil fuels? With the reactors off-line, Japan has fallen back on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas – and since Japan doesn’t have much in the way of energy resources, that means imports. In fact, in 2011 Japan ran a trade deficit for the first time in years largely because of all the fossil fuels it had to import. In the first three months of 2012 alone, Japan’s natural gas imports rose 18 percent over the previous year, totaling $67 billion.
If nuclear stays off-line, Japan’s going to be relying on fossil fuels for some time to come. As in the United States, renewable only account for about 1 percent of Japan’s power, and the Japanese government says it will take until 2020 to get them up to 20 percent. Japan’s efforts to cut greenhouse gases are going to lose ground.
What’s going to happen to the reactors? If Japan’s not going to use its reactors, then it can’t just leave them sitting there forever. Decommissioning 52 reactors would be a massive task, including disposing of the leftover nuclear material. Storing nuclear waste on-site was a major reason why the Fukushima disaster was so dangerous. This will take years, maybe decades to clean up.
Decisions in the energy world rarely happen quickly, whatever form of energy you’re talking about. There’s actually an advantage to moving deliberately. Energy choices quickly become major infrastructure decisions. Power plants take years to build, and stay in service for decades. Electricity grids are massive networks, too large to change quickly and too big to allow to fail. The choices made resonate through the economy, and in the daily lives of billions of people.
Japan has embarked on a historic shift in energy policy—without planning and essentially by default. It isn’t clear whether they’ve made the right moves.
In the United States, we’re still reluctant to make any basic energy choices, much less act on them. But clearly there’s an advantage in making choices, rather than having them forced upon you. Japan’s example is going to provide useful perspective – and we should pay attention before we allow our lack of decision-making to create our energy crisis.