Japan Switches Off All Nuclear Plants; Fears Fall as Emissions Rise
May 5, 2012
Japan has gone nuclear-free, but at what cost?
In the wake of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami and its resulting nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the country has switched off the power on all of its many nuclear reactors, out of public concern that another such disaster will accompany the next big earthquake.
Japan has 54 reactors in all. Together, they produced nearly 30 percent of the country's electricity. Now, that power is coming from plants powered by oil and gas, and the country that has been a leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions now finds its emission totals rising.
The first nuclear power plant went online in Japan in 1970. The Tomari reactor of Hokkaido Electric Power Company was the last one to shut down. Anti-nuclear activists celebrated with demonstrations.
Before Sendai, many Japanese people were quite content in the knowledge that their electricity came from nuclear power plants. Protests were rare, prices were stable, and emissions were low. Plans were in place to raise the share of nuclear-produced power to 50 percent.
Sendai changed all that, so much so that the Japanese government, fearing a backlash, has quietly shut down each of the country's reactors to maintenance and then not restarted them. But what is not known for certain is the effect that a fully functioning economy in the peak of summer will have on the country's power grid, now that the nuclear generators are offline. Last year, in the wake of the quake-tsunami, factories operated at night and on weekends, to save the grid from potential blackout. Now that much of the rebuilding is progressing, such off-peak operation will be held in much less favor.
All this will take place against the backdrop of the deaths of 15,000 people and the disappearance of 3,000 more, not to mention untold numbers of businesses and homes in ruins. Not all of that was caused by the nuclear meltdown. But the radiation released by the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has left many thousands homeless and has given voice to what was a quiet, small minority of people seeking to end the country's dependence on nuclear power. Now, that movement is loud and strong — somewhat of a novelty in Japan.
Nor is the country set up to capitalize on renewable energy. Just about 10 percent of Japan's energy comes from hydroelectric dams and from wind and solar-powered generators. Power companies will turn more to these sources of energy but will most certainly pass on the higher costs to consumers.
Then there is the matter of emissions. Japan has taken a leading role in both calling for and striving for the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan, calls for countries to cut their emissions to 1990 levels. Japan had those lower levels for the past few years, thanks in large part to the country's reliance on nuclear power plants, which don't emit the kind of greenhouses gases that coal plants do. But with the nuclear plants shut, perhaps for good, the country now depends on burning fossil fuels, for the most part, meaning a rise in emissions. It's not necessarily a good look, but it might have to be the look that Japan shows to the world for the foreseeable future, provided that the nuclear plants stayed switched off.