Maybe you’ve heard of the Tokai Earthquake. The expected epicentre is a bit west of here, in Shizuoka prefecture, but near enough for the predicted magnitude of over 8 to do plenty of damage in Nagoya. Our house was built fairly recently to the more stringent standards that came in after the Kobe earthquake, so I’m hoping we’ll be OK. Whatever, it’s definitely on its way – this quake has occurred regularly every 100~150 years, and the last one was in 1854 so it’s overdue. The probability of it happening in the next 30 years has been estimated at 87%.
Now, right in the centre of where the Tokai Earthquake is expected is the city of Omaezaki, and right there, on the coast, is the Hamaoka nuclear power station. It’s hard to believe that permission was granted to build this even after the danger of earthquake damage had been pointed out in official reports, but there seems to have been an unholy coalition between the previous LDP government, the nuclear and construction industries, and even sponsored university professors and the media, all of which have set Japan on the way to generating a large proportion of its electricity from nuclear energy. Read the Asahi newspaper’s interview with Taro Kono, one of the few LDP Diet members to oppose nuclear energy: (English translation).
In the context of having to reduce, almost eliminate, cabon dioxide emissions if the world is to remain inhabitable for human beings, replacing oil-burning power stations with atomic energy seems to make some sense as a temporary stop-gap, even if the cost of disposing of used fuel rods and of dismantling old power stations is probably huge, and still somewhat unknown. The recent earthquake in Tohoku, though, has reminded us just how enormous the costs of a nuclear accident could be. Of course earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, and though the power stations are supposed to have been built so as to withstand major shaking and high tidal waves, we have now seen how the best laid plans of mice and men…
The implications of a nuclear disaster within a couple of hundred kilometeres of Tokyo and Nagoya just don’t bear thinking about. Imagine having to evacuate Tokyo!!! So is an energy policy centred on nuclear power feasable for Japan? Prime minister Kan seems to have decided not, at least till they can harden the things up considerably, and two weeks ago he asked the Chubu power company to close down the remaining two reactors of five which were in operation at Hamaoka – a request they couldn’t really refuse.
So what now? The nuclear lobby are kicking hard, making quite reasonable claims that renewable energy is nowhere near being in a position to take over, or cheap enough even if the windmills and solar panels could be put up quickly. Public opinion, though, is with Kan on this, even though his overall popularity is pretty low, and the mood now is very much into economy. A bit of effort – turn down the air conditioners, turn off some lights, stagger days off, introduce Summer Time – and power consumption this summer might be cut by 15%. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. The point is that once a consensus has been reached the Japanese have been known to move quite fast. Revolutionary changes have taken place here still within living memory, and the Edo era wasn’t all that long ago.
Maybe we can afford some cautious optimism. Maybe Japan will catch up with Europe on the use of renewable energy and set an example for a less wasteful lifestyle – “mottanai” started here. Maybe Japanese technology will take the lead in developing new sources of energy. Maybe between us the more sane places in the world can bring America on board too…
All we can do is hope that this disaster might trigger the action needed to avoid the far worse disasters staring us in the face.