Nuclear Power: A Symbol of State Failure

Before the disaster in Fukushima I never really gave a whole lot of critical thought to nuclear power, except that in general I knew it to be a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel power sources. In college I wrote a paper on Nuclear Power and considered it then to be a viable “clean” energy source especially if the waste is handled properly. But since the Meltdown in Fukushima I have come to some very different conclusions. Because like the passengers on the Titanic discovered, human engineers are not infallible. Events can and will transpire in ways that will overcome every fail-safe, and every back up plan.

When this happens to a nuclear power plant the devastation it causes is intolerable.  The economic damage alone is massive but the greatest amount of the damage caused could never be calculated in monetary terms. A whole region of the country has been rendered radioactive. Or at least far more radioactive than it ever was.

Exactly how dangerous the levels of radiation are in Fukushima is a matter of contentious debate. The hard numbers are clear however: Current levels of radiation are on average 3 to 4 uSv/hr in the most effected areas. This is more than 20 times the normal background radiation levels in Japan (which range between 0.1 and 0.2 uSv/hr.  For a little more perspective, Flying on an airplane exposes you to 7 uSv/hr (Most of us do not live in airplanes however), and US Federal Standards (if we are to trust those) recommend no more than 10,000 uSv/year exposure over a lifetime (Federal occupational safety standards are more generous at 50,000 uSv/year). Living in some areas of Fukushima would exceed the 10k uSv standard level in 105 days. For children and infants federal standards call for no more than 5000 uSv/year exposure. A child living in Iitate or Soma districts, outside the 20km exclusion zone would exceed that level in 53 days.

Graphic showing Radiation measurements in Japan, the darkest areas are in the average 3 to 4 uSv/hr range, while the blue areas are at about normal background radiation levels.

Just as worrisome is the fact that the type of radiation released (mostly beta), is most dangerous when ingested. Which has caused fear and uncertainty surrounding food produced in Fukushima and nearby prefectures. People rightly fear that food coming out of those areas could harbor dangerous concentrations of radiation, and rather than measure radiation coming from every meal, people are instead simply not buying produce from those prefectures. That, of course, is even more immediately devastating to the residents of Fukushima, many of whom make some or all of their income, either directly or indirectly from farming.

So why do I say Nuclear power is a symbol of State Failure? Am I just harping on my “screw the gummint” theme yet again?

Because without government huge centralized energy monopolies like Tepco could not exist in the first place (they would face far too much competition to ever get that large), and in the second place the financial risks associated with nuclear power would likely not make it profitable without government to act as default “insurer.”

Tepco, the party responsible for the contamination of a vast region of northern Japan, would and should be financially responsible for footing the bill of the immediate and future damage to the region and its inhabitants due to radiation. But that bill would be so vast, so impossible for any company no matter the size to pay, that it simply won’t happen. Instead, the government pays, and when I say government, I mean the people of Japan pay for Tepco’s failure. Tepco is so big that to let them fail (as a business in Tepco’s position certainly should), would mean power disruption to a huge segment of the country.  Companies like Tepco know this, and they use it as an insurance policy against the risk of catastrophic failure. This is a stark illustration of the free rider problem. These “too-big-to-fail” companies know that if something catastrophic happens and they face losses or damages from which they cannot recover, the government will bail them out at the expense of the people.

Under normal circumstances businesses obtain insurance to protect them from such failures. What sort of insurance do you think would cover a nuclear meltdown?…

The cost of such insurance in a free market would be so high, that I doubt nuclear power would be an economically viable source of energy. The only way it becomes viable is if some entity exists to absorb the costs of catastrophic failure, and the only entity that is capable of that is the State.

So what’s the answer? Solar farms some might say. But actually I think that is not ideal either. First, I know a bit about the solar industry having worked with solar manufacturers in the US for the last 3 years, and I can tell you that the creation of a solar panel requires ungodly amounts of electrical power, and the use of some seriously bad bad chemicals. But still on the whole appears to be a lighter polluter than fossil fueled power. A conservative estimate is that it takes around 6 years of solar power generation for a panel to generate the amount of power that was necessary to create it.

Given that a solar panel can last significantly longer than 6 years, it is at least “better than nothing” and if I could afford it, I would certainly install them simply to be free of the grid. But I am not impressed by “Solar farms” at all. For one they take up precious land area, that could certainly be better left as forest, farm, or home, and for another they are simply tied to the grid and owned by the same companies like Tepco above, usually these projects are heavily subsidized, and generate a lot of PR, but in my mind they don’t do much actual good in terms of changing our relationship to energy.

The greatest thing about solar power is that it has the potential to put energy generation in the hands of the individual user. It can put people in control of their own energy source. Rather than big Solar Farms, I would much rather see solar networks (I realize that in order to do that the cost of Solar needs to come down to an ROI of at least less than 10 years and more ideally around 5 years). How many acres of roof space exists in Japan?

Of course the biggest impact one can make both for energy independence and on one’s energy budget is just to use less.

One last thing before I close this long rambling post. I really found the video of Tetsunari Iida posted earlier this last weekend on KenElwood’s blog to be quite fascinating, especially this quote:

from 6:10 – “In regards to Japan’s renewable energy,it has largely been suppress because of political reasons… energy companies in Japan are monopolies. In order to protect their monopolies they exclude renewable energy,” [through lobbying for legislation and regulations].

This of course is not only the case with energy companies, but is itself a systemic problem in Japan, where regulations for barriers to entry in many industries, effectively keeping out potential new competitors and protecting the established large companies, who in turn keep politicians in office…. a viscous circle that is. (I can feel a post coming on the regulations hampering the potential for microbreweries in Japan…)

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