CLIMATE SPECTATOR: The end of nuclear panic

Calls were made earlier this year that the world, led by Japan, was moving away from nuclear. A few months later and Japan's nuclear necessity has become clear.

Climate Spectator

On May 8, Matthew Wright wrote in Climate Spectator, under the heading 'The End of Nuclear', that Japan was "nuclear free...but life is going on... despite repeated warnings of a possible power crunch". Wright embellished his article with claims that electricity needed to maintain Japan’s nuclear reactors in an idle state was depriving emergency ward cases of ‘urgent medical attention to save your life’.

I was reminded at the time of Bob Dylan’s line, "don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin", a lyric Wright had clearly never heard.

Two reactors at the Ohi nuclear electricity plant, on Japan’s central west coast, have since been permitted to be re-started because, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had concluded it was necessary to avoid crippling power shortages in the heavily urbanised Kansai region.

The first of the two reactors has just reached criticality and will soon be generating electricity again.

This is happening only two months after Wright’s prediction of the end of nuclear electricity in Japan.

What does this tell us?

First, it tells us that Japan was not ‘nuclear free’ in May. In May, the final Japanese reactor to be put into maintenance was put into maintenance, just as was supposed to happen.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have been pretty nervous since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima reactors. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have taken their time in restarting their nuclear industry.

Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you want to be satisfied that the reactors could operate safely? Wouldn’t you want to take the temperature of public opinion so that restarting the reactors would not add to the distress that was the outcome of the Fukushima? Wouldn’t you want to have a real reason – like negative economic impact – to restart the reactors? Of course, you would.

Second, the restart tells us that life did not just ‘go on’. The continuation of the maintenance periods for Japan’s reactors had real life effects. The absence of nuclear electricity was leading to power shortages which would lead to falls in production capacity which would lead to rises in unemployment. So, the consequences were personal and real for those whose jobs were on the line.

The other consequence was that Japan’s use of fossil fuels was increasing and its greenhouse emissions were rising; and still are. Japan’s additional fossil fuel imports since Fukushima are costing it about $US40 billion, or $US333 per person, per year while its carbon emissions have risen some 14 per cent above 1990 levels.

And renewable electricity cannot be built fast enough or on a wide enough scale either to sustain Japan’s economy or, in the absence of nuclear power, avoid rising emissions.

If those were not the likely real life consequences of not having nuclear electricity, then wouldn’t you just let the reactors stay in maintenance, knowing the nuclear nervousness in Japan?

The third lesson here is about the way the nuclear debate is conducted.

Let’s drop silly and childish claims such as the claim that there is a trade-off between maintaining Japan’s nuclear reactors and saving lives in a hospital emergency ward.

In fact, let’s conduct this debate within real life boundaries that actually help people make up their minds and let our politicians make informed policy decisions. The boundaries include: the growing global demand for electricity; the inability of any individual electricity technology or limited technology portfolio to supply it all; that countries are already building broad electricity generation portfolios; that energy companies are doing the same; that the global portfolio and country portfolios will be shaped and constrained by economic, political, social and technology factors; and that all possible technologies have advantages and disadvantages.
Most of all, let’s monger hope, not fear.

Oh, and I haven’t forgotten Bob Dylan’s line. The future of the Japanese nuclear industry is still uncertain. The restart of some of Japan’s reactors is on the cards but how many and over what time frame is much less certain. Best not to predict, as we are all likely to get it wrong.

The only thing we can be sure of is that the fundamental drivers of demand for nuclear electricity (and for Australia’s uranium) – population growth, aspiration to prosperity, energy security, climate change – will continue to support a growing nuclear industry.

Michael Angwin is CEO of the Australian Uranium Association.