Friday, June 1, 2012

The Good & Bad Japanese Nuclear News: Nukes May Restart But Estimates of Radiation Releases Double

The New York Times reports this morning that, after recently closing all of its nuclear plants, Japan may restart its first nuke as early as next week. That news has multiple implications, including for fossil fuel pricing around the world, as nuclear power had supplied 30% of Japan's electricity, the world's third largest economy, and for global carbon emissions.  Japan's carbon emissions jumped, returning to 15% above 1990 levels, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

The Japanese government's and Tokyo Electric Power Company's credibility about the status and impacts of Fukushima has been shot for a long time.  Local government Japanese resistance to restarting nuclear plants had been rooted in their public's concern that Japanese nuclear regulators were not independent of the industry and had refused to face obvious earthquake and tsunami risks.  Undoubtedly, local confidence has been further shaken by the national government's information management.

Over the last 14 months, the estimates of the amount of radiation released have been repeatedly and significantly revised upwards.  For example, in February, 2012 the radiation release estimate was moved up to 480,000 terabecquerels.

Three months later, the estimate of radiation released from the 3 core meltdowns and the fire in a cooling pool storing waste rods doubled last week to 900,000 terabecquerels.  At this most recent estimate, Fukushima released 17% of the radiation during the Chernobyl disaster that caused substantial illness and increased cancer mortality.

Apparently, plans to create an entirely new and independent nuclear regulatory agency plus the desperate need for some nuclear plants to operate this summer to avoid blackouts are causing softening of resistance to restarting at least some of the closed units.

The real world of energy choices is far from perfect.   All have strengths and weaknesses.  Using more of one means using less of another.  Making a smart choice requires understanding the comparative advantages and disadvantages of each energy source.

 In this real world, I view the restart of Japanese nuclear plants as good news.  Others undoubtedly disagree.

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