One year ago, nuclear power provided about 26 percent of Japan’s electricity. Nuclear was a perfect option for Japan’s base-load power needs. As a resource poor but economically wealthy island nation, Japan benefited greatly from an energy source of high energy density. Several year’s worth of reactor fuel can be easily stored on site at a plant, as opposed to coal which requires a railroad siding into the plant or natural gas that requires a pipeline to provide the necessary constant fuel flow.
Then on March 11, 2011, an earthquake occurred that resulted from plate subduction under the Pacific to the east of Japan’s main island at a point north of Tokyo. If it were just an earthquake, it likely would have had minimal impact on Japan’s nuclear industry. There would probably have been an accelerated inspection cycle at the most severely affected plants, and possible long-term interference at some plants as repairs were made. However, when the plate under the ocean suddenly popped up, it sent a massive wall of water rushing toward the coast. When this tsunami hit, it completely washed out the back-up generators that ran the cooling system pumps. Without adequate cooling, the fuel temperatures climbed until the rods were damaged. Over the subsequent days there were a range of disasters from the dramatic explosions of built up hydrogen to the overflow of radioactive water, pumped in for cooling, into the ocean.
Skip to today and only two of Japan’s 50 operational plants are actually operating. Most plants faced an accelerated inspection schedule and were kept off-line due to public concern. Imagine the strain created in an advanced industrial nation when a power source responsible for between a quarter and a third of the nation’s power is cut off for an indefinite period. If one applied this situation to the US, one would be missing an important difference. The US has neighbors from which it can import electricity (and does so.) Japan, on the other hand, is an island and not part of an international power grid. Japan has had to make up for the loss of nuclear with other power sources, but, critically, it has also had to make due with less power. Many Japanese had a miserable summer last year without air-conditioning, and this summer looks like it may be more of the same.
Japan has been talking about doing away with nuclear power entirely, starting with the statement by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, but it will be interesting to see if this turns out to be the case. It should be noted that nuclear power was not particularly popular with the Japanese people even before the Fukushima Daiichi accident (there was a multi-country IAEA survey done several years ago that indicated as much), but it was popular with the powers that be for the reasons addressed above. Japan faces unique pressures when it comes to energy, and it will be no easy thing for the nation to turn its back on nuclear power.