News Analysis: Exploring Viewpoints on the Future of Nuclear

On September 2, the BBC World Service Inquiry programme published transcripts of four expert’s viewpoints on the future of nuclear energy technology. In this week’s News in Depth, I will discuss this article and take a critical look at the perspectives shared by the interviewees.

Four Viewpoints, One Theme

First, we hear from Tatsujiro Suzuki – Director of Research Centre for nuclear weapons abolition at Nagasaki University and former Vice-Chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission. Mr. Suzuki was Chair of the Commission at the time of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent Fukushima disaster. His recent career change – from nuclear regulatory official to nuclear critic – reflects the difficult journey Japan has faced in the last four years.

I personally felt very responsible for the event and I felt very sorry for the Fukushima people… This kind of accident has a serious social, ethical, political impact on their lives.

He is pessimistic that the people of Japan will be able to support any serious return to nuclear energy, saying that

In the public mind there was no clear connection between the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons… [Fukushima] is a huge, huge loss of public trust.

Next, Miranda Shreuers – a research director at the Free University in Berlin and a member of the commission to determine Germany’s nuclear policy – unequivocally states that she doesn’t believe Germany “could every again live with nuclear power.”

Gabrielle Hecht – a Professor of History at the University of Michigan – then speaks to the growth of nuclear energy in developing nations across Africa and argues that’s the path of those countries is similar to western nations in the 1950s,

The prospect of having abundant electricity in place where there are very often electricity brownouts and blackouts, and where large parts of the country are not electrified, is huge.

However, Hecht believes that new nuclear plants should not be built and that these countries should look for other solutions.

Finally, the BBC spoke with Steve Kidd – a nuclear energy consultant with East Cliff Consulting in the UK who has over over 18 years experience working for the The World Nuclear Association (WNA). While a proponent of nuclear, Mr. Kidd is pessimistic that nuclear energy can “take on that role that’s been left open for it.” His belief is that the industry’s core issue is that it has failed to communicate effectively,

The industry has tried to counter [public fear] with a factional approach, almost saying to the public, ‘you’re stupid, you’re irrational’, but in fact the development of their beliefs has been wholly rational, based on what they’ve seen and heard over the years, and something like the Fukushima accident obviously gives credence to such fears.

In summary, these four experts share a common idea: that nuclear energy as we know it faces a difficult future. For everyone but Mr. Kidd, it seems that that future is one of full decommissioning – a future in which nuclear is part of medicine and scientific study but not energy production. However, is this narrative of decline and the supremacy of fear over fact unchangeable? What, if anything can be done?

A Living Narrative

It turns out that Mr. Suzuki, quoted earlier from the BBC transcript, provides us with a useful starting point for thinking about the power of narrative and the ways in which we talk about nuclear. In March, he penned a lead essay for the East Asia Forum, in which he made the argument that the best strategy for Japan’s nuclear energy regulator and industry to regain trust is a simple one, honesty.

Transparency in policymaking is essential. The public needs to be involved in decision making… The current Japanese policy debate is completely polarized between advocates for and opponents against nuclear energy. An independent organization is required to help adjudicate between the two sides, and it needs to be one that the public can trust.

In other words, what is needed to overcome the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that surrounds nuclear energy in Japan – and arguably elsewhere – is intense, unwavering honesty and dialogue.

This leads me to forward a thesis – the nuclear energy story, or narrative, as we know it is in crisis, and the only way forward is for proponents and opponents to work together in good faith. What does this mean? It means that the narrative is not something that simply is but rather something we do. We, as individuals and as groups, shape and reshape the story of nuclear. For some, they believe that it is a story that should end. For others, myself and many of our readers included, we believe that the story is simply evolving. For some places, maybe nuclear is not the best solution. But for others, the technology may unlock vast amounts of human potential.

We must work together to find out what the story may bring next. The BBC piece that started this discussion is part of that, but of course it is but one small part of the story. The people quoted here have a viewpoint, and we can take it and build upon, but we can’t stop there. Many people, and many voices have to be involved in this messy process, but we will can continue to write this story together, one line at a time.

 

News in Depth: Japan’s Shift Towards Fossil Fuels Raises New Questions about Emissions and Nuclear Investment

Introduction

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on Japan’s increasing investment in coal, oil, and natural gas as the country strains to produce enough electricity following the idling of all nuclear plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in March of 2011.

Japan’s embrace of fossil fuels has a number of implications, most notably the pressure on emissions standards and on medium and long term investments in nuclear and renewable energy sources more broadly. In this week’s News in Depth feature, we explore Japan’s recent moves with respect to fossil fuels and the impact those moves have on emissions and strategies for energy infrastructure investment.

The Low Price of Oil and it’s Impact on Japan’s Energy Sector

As of writing, Oil is priced at ($53.44 for Brent Crude), reflecting a downward trend that began in 2014.

Crude Oil 6 Month Price Trend

Goldman Sachs analysts suggest that we may see the price of U.S. crude drop as far as $40 a barrel in the near-term, as inventories begin to rise.

While we continue to forecast a strong demand recovery in 2015, we believe that sequentially weaker activity, the end of winter and the end of potential restocking demand, will lead to a sequential deceleration in demand-growth as we enter the spring.

These prices, in addition to low coal and natural gas prices, have had a major impact on Japan as it seeks to fill the capacity void left by its 48 idled nuclear plants. Japan brought 14 new gas and coal-fired power plants online by the end of 2014 alone. It’s also been reported that by the end of 2025, Japan hopes to have a total capacity of over 13GW of new coal generation.

Reactions to this shift towards oil, coal, and gas have been mixed. There are clear political and economic advantages to Japan’s diversification. Perhaps most importantly, reliance on the cheaper fossil fuels will help Japan ease it’s energy import bill. In the first half of 2014, Japan’s trade gap reached 4.8 trillion yen. Moves to these cheaper energy sources are projected to lower that deficit and to ease pressure on and lower costs for Japan’s economy and manufacturing sector.

However, with Japan being the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, concerns have been raised about its increasing reliance of fossil fuels. Aaron Sheldrick, reporting for the Japan Times, writes that Japan is seeing increasing pressure from other countries, including China and the US, to meet it’s emission targets.

Balancing Short Term and Long Term Energy Investments

While the situation in Japan reflects many unique factors, including the Fukushima disaster and the public distrust of nuclear energy, it also provides a number of interesting angles of analysis. There is the broader phenomena of cheap oil and fossil fuels. However, the concerns highlighted above, including climate change and the regulation of carbon emissions, highlight the importance of keeping a longer term view on energy infrastructure investment. Moreover, it is important to consider the balance of an interest in highly elastic and less capital intensive energy sources, such as fossil fuels, with an interest in longer term infrastructure investments, such as nuclear, that pollute less and provide for greater supply certainty for growing economies.

For more on these issues, listen to The Bulletin with UBS podcast by Monocle, which this weeks focuses on global investment strategies in the oil sector. For further reference and cost comparisons between different energy sources, see also The Economics of Nuclear Power.

Japan receives first nuclear reactor fuel shipment since Fukushima meltdown

The first shipment of nuclear fuel since the 2011 Fukushima meltdown has arrived at the port of Takahama, Japan greeted by a group of anti-nuclear protestors. [1] Japanese power company Kepco originally ordered 20 fuel assemblies of mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel in 2010, but the order was delayed after the Fukushima meltdown. [1]

Nearly all of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been offline since March of 2011 when a tsunami caused meltdowns and explosions at a nuclear generation station in Fukushima.  The government recently announced updated regulations that, if met, could see Japan’s nuclear reactors back online. [2] At present, the government has not approved the restart of the reactors at Fukushima or the use of MOX fuel in any Japanese reactors. [1]

This situation doesn’t sit well with the protestors. Carrying signs with messages like “No nukes is good nukes!”, they are concerned that new regulations don’t go far enough and that the nuclear fuel will sit unused in Japanese power sites posing a safety risk. [1] Both parties await the government’s progress on restarting Japan’s reactors.

Sources:

1. Johnston, Eric. First MOX shipment since Fukushima disaster arrives in Fukui, The Japan Times, www.japantimes.co.jp

2. Japan receives 1st shipment of nuclear reactor fuel since 2011 disaster forced shutdowns, Associated Press via Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com