28 June 2011

Hypocritical much?

I'm well aware that Japan and the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami is out of international news by now. It's been long replaced with other stories, such as Libya, Syria, other countries that end with -ia, and politicians tweeting their wieners. If covered at all, chances are that what you hear from Japan has the word "Fukushima" in it, since that seems to be the preferable way news desks worldwide see the potential for scaring people into buying papers.

That might sound cynical, but I've been monitoring foreign coverage of Japan lately, and it's not encouraging. If you have spotted Japan in the news recently, there's a good chance you think the entire country is a wasteland. If you haven't, though, there is an equally good chance you think everything is back to normal.

Neither is particularly close to the truth.

First of all, there are areas where the tsunami left entire societies in pieces, many of which are still not rebuilt, some of which it will take years to fix. Many of the people - those who survived - previously living in these societies, have not been able to return yet. Some are still living in shelters - high schools and sports centers and whatnot - while others have moved to temporary housing of the slightly more permanent kind. But even here there are problems. Some of these houses do not have tap water, or if they do, it might not be drinkable. Some of them are located far away from shops and other facilities, which is unfortunate since many of the residents are elderly and/or without cars (a substantial number of cars were washed away or destroyed in the disaster).

Then there is Fukushima. It is still very much a topic - both because it is ongoing, even though the reports of new developments are few and less spectacular now than they were in the beginning. But there remain unanswered questions. How much radiation was actually released, and can we trust the measuring now? What sort of impact does this, and the still heightened levels surrounding the defunct power plant, have on the people living there, the food produced close by, or the fish in the surrounding sea?

In addition, there is a political crisis in the country. The Prime Minister is sitting on a bit of a catapult seat (the details of which you can find in a rant from yours truly, here). While it seems to me that the Japanese population isn't particularly happy about changing the head of the government right in the middle of a crisis, the members of the parliament seem intent to do so. Further, the political crisis might have direct influence on the general crisis, since passing of laws and bills (such as the reconstruction budgets, for instance) requires political agreement.

And let's not forget the economic crisis while we're at it. The disaster sent Japan into its first trade deficit for more than a decade. That alone isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that exports have gone down - more or less the only thing that was pulling the already sluggish Japanese economy - is not good. However, by now a lot of the production in Japan is nearing its pre-crisis level. That opens for exports again, and thus there might be light at the end of the tunnel. But Japan already faced tremendous economic challenges before the crisis, and so far it's looking like the impact of the crisis has been all bad (without even the small benefit of inflation, as some economists hoped for).

Apart from this, however, most of Japan is functioning as usual. It's not dangerous to travel here - unless you insist on going to the no-go zone around the Fukushima-power plant... Same goes for food produced in Japan - I don't worry about that anymore. I trust that the tests the authorities in cooperation with international organizations such as WHO perform are as good as they can get, and that the food here probably will not kill me anymore than food produced elsewhere would (e.coli in Europe, anyone?). And despite all the bad things I said about the Japanese economy in the previous paragraph, I do think it's safe and wise to invest here again. The tsunami did not wash away the Japanese innovative spirit. They *will* recover, and foreign investments will be much needed (and probably much rewarded, with time).

As for quakes? Yes, there is still the occasional aftershock, but by now they are mostly down to the pre-disaster levels. Japan has always been, and will always be, a seismically active country. Those of us who have spent some time here know this, and by now I'm not even as edgy about them as I was. I had the following conversation with a friend from back home the other day:

"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, my cold is getting better..."
"I meant the earthquake..."
"Earthquake? Oh, you mean the 6,7 we had this morning? Yeah, didn't feel it. Don't think it did any damage. No biggie."

So that's not so much an issue anymore.

What IS an issue, though, is the energy supply, and what will happen with it during summer.

You probably knew that the Fukushima plants are now closed (or as closed as they get, since they are still struggling to cool them down). But did you also know that a good 30 others of Japan's total 54 reactors are closed for the time being? Due to interruptions of regular security checks after 3/11, many plants were shut down as a safety measure. Japan has relied quite heavily on nuclear power, and thus this is putting a severe strain on the energy supply. During the summer, when the sweltering heat makes living and working without air-conditioning seem almost impossible, it is feared that the country will face blackouts. This coincides with industries trying their best to make up for lost production by running the assembly lines at top speed. And at a time when fossil fuels are running at an all-time high cost precisely due to the incidents in Japan, and those in the Middle East.

Japan is trying. The Prime Minister - from his catapult seat - is promoting renewable energies. It's a good cause, and an important one if Japan is to find economically and environmentally affordable energy sources in the future. But "future" is a keyword here. You cannot exchange nuclear for solar, geothermic, wind and hydro power overnight. The time frame Prime Minister Kan has set is "20% by early 2020s". It's commendable, ambitious and perhaps even possible. But it doesn't solve the problem right now, this summer.

People living here are also trying to save energy. They turn off their AC, or at least set the temperatures higher. In order to make this more feasible, the "Super Cool Biz" campaign  (a intensification of the regular "Cool Biz", where people are encouraged to loosen [or remove] their ties and jackets to better cope with the summer temperatures) is running. I haven't seen many Hawaii-shirts in Tokyo streets yet, but who knows - perhaps this will be the end of the traditional Japanese salaryman "uniform" - black suit, white shirts and ties?

It's difficult, though. Have you tried working in an office environment where the temperatures rise above 25, 30, 35 degrees (celcius)? It doesn't really matter if your shirt is white or Hawaiian, I can assure you. And the same ting goes for my house. Lately I've been sleeping poorly, waking up every hour or so, guiltily letting the AC run for a few minutes. I can't open the window - since the mosquitoes here seem intent to eat me alive - and it wouldn't do me much good anyway with the still hot night air flowing in with the bugs. It's not comfortable, and it's not healthy. And this is just the start. Summer in Tokyo is hot and humid, and June is nowhere near as bad as July or August. The worst is yet to come. Some claim that the nuclear lobby - a considerable force in this country - are keeping a low profile until the worst commotion has settled down. Then, when summer sets in for real, they might remind people how one again can afford using cooling systems. It might be a conspiracy strategy, but it really sounds quite effective...

The Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry is saying that it is safe to turn the nuclear reactors closed due to the security check interruptions back on. Prime Minister Kan admits that a (near) future without nuclear power in Japan is hard to imagine. The population, I don't know... As often is the case here, they generally don't speak up much. We've had some demonstrations, but we're talking a few hundred people. Out of 127 million. The newspaper Asahi Shimbun recently published an interesting survey, however. 74 percent said that they supported a gradual termination of nuclear power. I think this is probably the closest to the truth you get. Japanese people are pragmatic. They understand that shutting down all reactors tomorrow is impossible. But they also don't want another Fukushima.

Personally I see a lot of problems with nuclear power plants. If it were up to me, we'd have nothing of them. We'd go all the way for renewable energy (and when I say renewable, I mean that, and not pseudo-renewable as nuclear is, since it leaves HUGE infrastructural and logistic problems once the reactors are too old. They will continue to demand attention [and potentially costs] for centuries or millennia after they stop producing values). I'd like solar panels on every rooftop, windmills, and every other environmentally friendly energy form there is to dominate the market.

But for now it is an illusion. Maybe Japan will manage 20 by 2020. In the meantime, however, it's difficult not feeling like a hypocrite. I don't want them to turn the reactors back on, but I also don't want to live through the summer feeling like a raisin-zombie. I'll be leaving mid-July, so probably I'm not even going to see the worst of it. Which makes me an even bigger hypocrite.

But there you go. The world works as it always does. We all want too much. I want my cake, and I want to eat it too. And since I will leave the cake soon (stretching the metaphor here now, I know...), I feel that my nibbling at its edges won't make that big a difference. I'm good at turning off the light when I'm not in the room, after all... But of course it does, if we all think that way. Thus, I can only hope for Japan's sake that the rest of the people living here are not as big hypocrites as I am...


Dunx said...

The most common reason to mention the state of recovery in Japan on the news that I listen to is when they're talking about supply chain problems for car manufacturers. Even Fukushima doesn't get mentioned much.

But I'm very angry about the reaction to Fukushima. For me the story is not the scale of the disaster but the scale of the disaster which was avoided: the earthquake and tsunami were way beyond design tolerances; the reactor was obsolete and poorly maintained; cooling systems failed and the repairs were mis-managed; and yet the reactor still didn't disappear in a nuclear fireball. Even when nuclear power is done badly it is still safer than coal.

That's the story, and the global reaction against nuclear power is really rather disappointing to me.

Hart Johnson said...

Mari-I think, were it any of my business, my reaction would be exactly the same as yours. I don't like nuclear power--never have--and it has to do with the fact that it is NEVER DONE... the waste lasts basically forever and we have no clue how to deal with it. Yes on the wind and sun.

I love the pragmatic Japanese you describe. I haven't been to Japan, but you always make me want to go.

Michael Offutt said...

I believe in nuclear power. I don't think that the situation was handled well at all at Fukushima and that they made many mistakes. Personally, nuclear power gives an opportunity for tremendous affordable energy and I hate to see it come under attack because of a disaster like this.

Cruella Collett said...

Yes, and no.

For the sake of the argument, I am willing to accept that most of my (and others') reservations about nuclear power are based on fear. In reality, the common man (and woman) knows very little about nuclear power, the effect of radiation, or how much it takes to make an effect at all. We just get scared when we hear the word "nuclear", and forget to think rationally about it. Most of us immediately jump to the conclusion "cancer" (or worse - "mutation" - I'm fairly sure there are people who truly believe you might turn into the Hulk or something by exposure to radiation...). The point is, it's an irrational fear.

BUT. That doesn't mean I buy the argument that it's economically preferable to whatever alternatives there are out there.

First of all, as mentioned, a nuclear power plant will inevitably continue to demand costs for a long long long time after it stops producing values. Is it still cheap energy if you count the cost of keeping the waste safe for ten thousand years afterwards?

Secondly, there is the matter of R&D. When people say solar power is expensive, it is generally because the research and development to make it up and running is included in the price. Since nuclear power was subsidized from the start, this cost has already been covered by governments. If included in the total amount, the price regime might be another.

Third, nuclear power plants are almost always under-insured. TEPCO has in this disaster lost more than it has earned in its 38 year long history. Obviously it wasn't insured for that. The economic impact the disaster have had - ranging from compensation paid to evacuees to loss of profit from export fall - is MASSIVE.

Thus I don't buy the argument that nuclear power - at least not as it stands today - is as economically sound as the proponents claim.