The recent news from Japan indicates that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is moving closer to restarting the first of Japan's nuclear reactors. His initiative is still in progress and continues to face opposition, but he has made an unusually urgent plea for restart of the reactors and painted a bleak picture of what might happen if no reactors are restarted.
Not only are Japan's current living standards at risk, but he also lays out the concern about national security and the need to avoid relying too heavily on oil and natural gas from the politically unstable Middle East. To those who believe that Japan is getting along just fine without nuclear power, he points out that the summer months, when the demand for electricity will reach its peak, still lie ahead.
Local leaders are beginning to come around, but ominously, some are responding narrowly to the concerns about summer demands by saying that the Ohi plant, the first targeted for restart, should operate only for the summer--at least until Japan revamps its regulatory oversight, a process that is still underway.
A related blog by Yoshito Hori, one of my friends in Japan, points out some of the reasons that Japan appears to be surviving without nuclear power, and why the appearances are wrong. He points out that some companies are buying their own generators. This is a very expensive proposition, and the money for those purchases is draining wages, profits, and expansion plans. He also reiterates a concern we've heard elsewhere, that companies are trying to move more of their production capacity offshore, resulting in the hollowing out of industry. He also notes other measures being taken, such as adjusting factory schedules.
I would add one important action to Hori-san's blog--that is the increase in the use of fossil fuel plants. The additional use of fossil fuels this past year has already had a measurable effect on air pollution, and will likely result in increased illness and deaths, especially among the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
Hori-san's blog reminded me of a dilemma I have faced during most of my career: How does one measure the accuracy of predictions? In my first job out of college, I was doing some long-range planning. I applied for a position in another organization and was challenged by the interviewer, "Why is it that the predictions you long-range planners make always seem to be wrong?"
The question took me by surprise, and I probably mumbled an answer that wasn't very good, but the question stuck with me over the years, and I finally figured out what I should have said. It is human nature to try to prepare for a situation and to make adjustments. Therefore, for example, if you predict a monster hurricane that could kill a million people in coastal communities and they evacuate and no one dies, was the prediction faulty?
What is happening in Japan is a less extreme version of the same phenomenon. People and companies are being warned of potential power shortages, so they are making all the adjustments they can. Some are fairly small things, like shedding coats and ties. Others are relatively minor inconveniences, like making do with less lighting. Still others involve various kinds and degrees of individual and corporate sacrifices--changing work schedules, cutting back work hours, delaying growth plans.
These shift the dynamic. We don't see the predicted energy shortages, or if we see them, they are far less than the original predictions, so the original prediction looks "wrong." There are effects on people's lives and on the economy, but it is often difficult to make a one-to-one correspondence between the shuttered nuclear power plants and some of these consequences. There are spurious events, such as the abnormally cool weather in Japan last summer, that provide misleading "evidence."
Hori-san's blog ends with a stark vision of the two choices facing the nation--to learn from the accident, restart the plants whose safety is validated, and in parallel, develop a new long-range energy strategy, or to leave the plants closed and to see the national wealth drained.