By Tetsuji Ida
TOKYO, May 16, Kyodo
Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor went offline on May 5 for routine maintenance, leaving the nation without any operating nuclear plants. The shutdown happened to coincide with Children’s Day, on which the nation contemplates the happiness and well-being of its children — the pillars of future generations.
I truly hope that we can make this day as an opportunity to seriously think about the energy issue for the future and the starting point to work toward realizing a new, sustainable energy supply-demand system for the next generation that steers clear of nuclear power as well as global warming resulting from the massive consumption of fossil fuels.
Currently, Japan’s power supply system relies on huge nuclear and thermal power plants built in less populated regions, the electricity output of which is delivered to energy-gulping urban areas far away using massive transmission grids.
But the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi complex, which triggered the current suspension of all operating nuclear plants, revealed exactly the fragility of such a large-scale concentration, or top-down system.
Under this system, when a power station goes out of service such as in an accident, electricity supplies are interrupted in a widespread area. Such a risk is even higher when a large number of power plants are concentrated in the same area, like in the case of Fukushima.
A typical example of this problem is Kansai Electric Power Co., which faces the most severe power supply shortage this summer compared with other utilities because it is highly dependent on large-scale nuclear power plants.
Other problems with locating nuclear power stations at distant sites also include poor energy efficiency, as it is not easy to utilize the heat that results from power generation and difficult to adjust electricity supplies accordingly to demand fluctuations.
Moreover, there is the ”ethical” issue of exposing rural areas with low power consumption, where the plants are usually built, to the enormous risks associated with nuclear complexes.
Nowadays, many countries around the world are moving toward creating distributed or network power systems that are completely different to that of Japan.
The idea is to minimize problems associated with large-scale power plants, given their immense risks, and instead generate power using renewable and other green energy sources in a distributed manner in areas close to where it is consumed. This way, the heat released during power generation can also be put to use for boiling water, district heating and air conditioning.
In fact, some next-generation systems are gradually being put in place.
For example, power generation and transmission businesses are being separated and the market opened up to even small-scale energy providers or those only operating during peak consumption, with supply and demand being constantly monitored in real time.
More efficient energy use can also be realized, such as by utilizing rechargeable batteries in cars.
Proponents of nuclear power claim that Japan is poor in energy resources. But in fact, with regard to distributed power generation based on renewable energy and the use of heat as an energy source, Japan is rich in such resources.
Its long coastline and extensive maritime exclusive economic zone are suited for wind and wave energy. Japan also has rich and fast-growing forests, as well as the world’s third-largest abundance of geothermal resources. Furthermore, Japan is more advantaged in terms of sunlight and solar heat than Germany, for example.
What politicians should be addressing right now is not whether to restart idled nuclear reactors, something that can only be deemed way too hasty, or ”the percentage of total supply that nuclear power should account for by 2030.”
Unbundling or the separation of power generation and transmission as well as other organizational reforms are prerequisites for supplying energy safely while minimizing the impact on the environment.
What is important at this moment is to demonstrate a political will to eliminate resistance from vested interests and hammer out such reforms.
(Tetsuji Ida is a senior feature writer of Kyodo News.)