Japan’s earthquake and tsunami not only ignited catastrophic explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant, it also sent shockwaves through global energy policy

Naoto Kan has stepped down as Japan’s prime minister, the latest casualty of his government’s incompetence in the face of the disaster in March. His successor, Yoshihiko Noda, previously finance minister, is the sixth prime minister in five years, also a reflection of the frustration and anger at decades of economic stagnation.

Noda is trying to come to the rescue of the nuclear industry but faces an uphill task. Three of Japan’s senior nuclear energy officials are being replaced. Banri Kaida, minister in charge of the industry, has also said he will step down.

On 3 August, The Guardian reported that lethal levels of radiation are still being found at the plant. Tokyo Electric Power admitted that radiation exceeding 10,000 millisieverts (mSv) per hour has been detected. Workers are allowed to be exposed to a maximum of 250 mSv a year. The way Tokyo Electric Power and the government of Naoto Kan mishandled the catastrophe led to mass anger erupting onto the streets.

David Pilling reported in the Financial Times (1 August) from a town-hall meeting in Fukushima where local people met with government bureaucrats from Tokyo. Anger mounted at the evasive answers to their questions. The meeting ended with members of the audience chasing the officials with vials of urine, demanding that their children’s urine is tested for levels of radiation. There is deep anger at out-of-touch establishment politicians who seem willing to test beef for radiation, primarily to protect agribusiness interests, while ignoring the health concerns and needs of people.

Nuclear industry impunity

Japan’s nuclear power industry has been completely unaccountable and has acted with impunity. Lacking fossil-fuel resources, nuclear energy has been prioritised to drive Japan’s huge industrial sector. But the Fukushima near-miss (so far) testifies to the potential dangers of this policy.

Thirty-eight of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently shut down, mostly for routine inspections. Under pressure, however, local governments have refused to reopen them. It is conceivable that by next March all 54 could be out of action as there are inspections every 13 months. That would strip Japan of nearly a third of its pre-11 March power-generation capacity.

Kaida further enraged people with his announcement that most of the reactors are safe, without giving any indication on how he made that judgment. People are demanding that the government explains the risks openly, instead of issuing bland, blanket assurances: “So sour is the prevailing mood that this really might put a nail in the nuclear coffin”. (Economist, 24 June)

The new wave of protest and struggle has echoes of the 1970s, when community groups were instrumental in changing government policy on the environment, pressing for improvements in air and water quality. Japan’s entire energy policy is under scrutiny, as are the levels of compensation for evacuees, and wider issues such as devolving more political power from Tokyo.

Obvious, but ominous and unanswerable, questions were posed by Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford University: “How could a sophisticated country like Japan put its back-up generators in the path of a large wave? The question is: what else hasn’t been checked?” (Financial Times, 7 June) About 440 nuclear power reactors are in operation around the world. Another 60 are under construction and 493 more are planned or proposed. Many of these are in countries with far inferior infrastructural and technological development than Japan.

U-turn in Germany

Less than five months before the catastrophe in Japan, German chancellor, Angela Merkel, pushed through her plan to extend the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear plants to 2036 from 2022. This immediately ignited protests. The Fukushima disaster saw this mood explode in massive demonstrations. Such was the level of anger that Merkel was forced into a complete u-turn on 30 May.

Her right-wing Christian Democratic Party had suffered defeats in five regional elections, notably coming behind the Social Democrats and Greens in Bremen in May for the first time at state level. Buffeted by the eurozone crisis, and with federal elections on the horizon in 2013, Merkel is desperately hoping for a political revival. She is now a zealous convert to non-nuclear energy, claiming that her ‘energy switch’ is akin to the reunification of East and West Germany following the dismantling of the Berlin wall – consciously using language reminiscent of that time.

The eight oldest nuclear plants are to be shut down by the end of this year. Another six will close between 2015 and the end of 2021, the last three by the end of 2022. The government claims that nuclear power, which produces 23% of the nation’s electricity, will be replaced mainly with renewable energy, whose proportion of electricity production is targeted to reach 35% by 2020. (In 2000, 30% of electricity came from nuclear. Since then, renewables have expanded their share from 6.6% to 16.5%.)

There is a long way to go to achieve this. The Financial Times pointed out (3 July) that Germany has only one working commercial offshore wind farm and one near completion. They will generate 92 megawatts (MW) – a tenth of that from a typical nuclear plant. In comparison, Britain has about 1,300MW. Much of Germany’s coastline is a national park, forcing plants into deep water. Of the 3,500km (2,175 miles) of transmission lines needed to carry renewable power from northern sources to the south and west, just 90km have been built. It is clear, nonetheless, that a section of German manufacturing is looking to capitalise on today’s favourable circumstances by investing in the sustainable energy market.

The chief short-to-medium term beneficiary, however, will be natural gas. Merkel’s ‘energy switch’ plan says that fossil fuel-burning power stations could replace about half of the 20,000MW of nuclear capacity that will be taken out by 2022. But the government says it will need another 10,000MW in capacity to make sure Germany does not suffer power outages or have to resort to importing electricity from France or Czech Republic, which would be nuclear generated.

International repercussions

The Swiss parliament also voted against renewing the country’s nuclear reactors. This followed mass demonstrations, including a 20,000-strong protest on 28 May. As in Germany, the decision was a 180° turn. As recently as this spring, new reactors were being considered.

In Italy, just two weeks after Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition was hammered in Italy’s local elections, referendums rejected legislation on nuclear energy, the privatisation of water utilities and legal immunity for government ministers. This was a protest which linked issues raised by Fukushima with a general rejection of Berlusconi’s rule. It was the first time since 1995 that the turnout in a referendum had reached the required limit to be binding. Now Italy’s Enel and France’s EDF have to scrap plans to build Italy’s first nuclear power plants since a 1987 referendum mothballed existing reactors.

Thailand has halted the construction of five nuclear plants. And Malaysia, which had planned to start up its first nuclear station in 2021, has put its programme on hold.

The Fukushima shockwave also reached the US. Officials had claimed that reactors in the US would be safe from such disasters because of their stronger venting systems. But Tokyo Electric Power Company has released documents showing that Fukushima Daiichi installed the same vents years ago. (New York Times, 17 May) They detail the growing desperation at the plant as workers struggled in vain to manually open the safety valves. As a result, three of the reactors exploded in succession.

The venting system had first been introduced in the US in the late 1980s. This was part of a ‘safety enhancement programme’ for boiling-water reactors of the Mark I containment type, designed by General Electric in the 1960s. Between 1998 and 2001, it was brought into Fukushima Daiichi, where five of six reactors use the Mark I system.

Short-term views

Clearly, there is a global rejection of nuclear power. However, the argument, increasingly endorsed by many environmentalists, is that nuclear power is necessary to avoid the world’s energy demand being met by fossil fuels, in spite of its dangers. But this is a position of resignation, based on the false assumption that capitalism is the only economic system possible.

Generally speaking, research, development and investment in renewable energy have been minimal. Japan, for instance, is the second-largest manufacturer of solar panels, behind China, with companies like Toshiba, Panasonic and Sharp to the fore. Yet, according to government data, in 2007 Japan generated just 6% of its primary energy from renewable sources, including hydropower, virtually unchanged since 1973. In Britain, despite coalition government hype, investment in renewables fell by 70% in 2010. (Financial Times, 19 May)

Profit-driven capitalism is locked onto short-term, stop-gap measures. The exploitation of shale gas is just the latest in a long line of spurious ‘solutions’ (see box). Here too, however, mass pressure has had an effect. The French government awarded permits to major oil companies with little or no public consultation or information. This provoked a huge backlash, with hundreds of anti-shale groups organising protests and rallies. These have led to a moratorium on the industry.

Despite the claims, shale gas will cause untold damage to land, water and air. It will ensure the continued use of fossil fuels into the future. This is at a time when the International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record, with 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere last year, a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009. (Guardian, 30 May)

The IEA calculated that if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32Gt by 2020. If this year’s emissions rise by as much as they did in 2010, that limit will be exceeded nine years ahead of schedule, making it all but impossible to keep warming to a manageable level, on the basis of the gas-guzzling capitalist system.

The dangers of fracking shale

GAS COMPANIES are pushing shale gas as the best way to meet rising demand for power and cut emissions. Shale gas is produced by a process of fracking, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground into horizontal gas wells at extremely high pressure to break apart hard, hydrocarbon-rich shale and extract natural gas.

Britain’s coalition government is keen. A report from the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee of MPs argued that shale gas could boost domestic gas production and enhance energy security. It said that there was no evidence that fracking was unsafe or that it posed a risk to water supplies. (Guardian, 13 June) Maybe the MPs had not seen last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Gasland, which famously showed water so contaminated that residents in Pennsylvania were able to set it alight when it flowed from their taps.

Pennsylvania is where the shale trail is being blazed. Companies, such as Shell, Chevron, Reliance and BG Group (half of the former British Gas), expect to drill 2,000 additional wells in the state this year, on top of 1,415 in 2010.

Shale gas extraction has caused a very long list of catastrophes – fraccidents as they are becoming known. In April in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, drillers lost control of a well which spewed chemicals for 19 hours. Homeowners have been issued with gas detectors to lower the risk of an explosion – two homes have exploded since late last year. Residents in a number of towns have to boil tap water before drinking after water treatment plants were polluted by bromides from gas-drilling projects.

A blowout at a gas well in Punxsutawney, Clearfield County, hurled a 23-metre combustible gusher of gas and toxic waste water into the air. It took the gas company, EOG Resources, 16 hours to control it. A report released by Democratic members of Congress on 18 April found that more than 650 of the chemicals used in fracking were carcinogens. They have been used in at least 13 states. (Guardian, 1 June)

The gas industry has used a report by the European Gas Advocacy Forum (EGAF) to back up its hyperbole. The EGAF claims that shale gas would be a cheaper and more viable form of energy than renewables, and that it would generate half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. This report, however, is a distortion of a study by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), a green think-tank. The ECF stated: “We in no way endorse this [EGAF] report. Heavy dependency on gas, as this report seems to suggest, is not a viable alternative to a low-carbon generation network with low dependence on fossil fuels in terms of cost, energy security, or climate resilience”. (Guardian, 20 April)

A study from Cornell University, published in the Climate Change Letters journal, also exposes the EGAF spin. It showed, for example, that 4-8% of the methane from shale gas production escaped into the atmosphere during the lifetime of a well. Methane is more than 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. If all emissions associated with shale gas production and combustion are taken into account, it could be even more harmful in climate change terms than coal, which is widely regarded as the dirtiest fossil fuel.

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