Earlier this week, the operators of Tomari Nuclear Power Plant in Hokkaido, Japan, shut down Reactor Number 3 for regular inspection. But while the maintenance may have been routine, Japan's new energy predicament is unique in the industrialized world. That's because, for the first time since 1970, not a single watt of the country's energy portfolio is coming from nuclear power.
Since the Fukushima catastrophe traumatized the nation in March of 2011, the Japanese government has not allowed any of the country's 54 nuclear reactors to be turned back on, citing the need to perform stress tests to ensure their safety. The Japanese public, once enamored of nuclear power, has turned vehemently against it – in a poll conducted this winter, nearly 80% of the country favored phasing out nuclear energy. Last Saturday, as the Tomari reactor ground to a halt, thousands took to the streets of Tokyo to celebrate the suspension of the nuclear era.
Yet Japan's moratorium raises a bevy of questions about the nation's future – namely, where the heck are 130 million people going to get their energy? Before Fukushima, nuclear plants provided 30% of the country's power, and officials were banking on this figure reaching 40% by 2017. Now Japan finds itself facing potential power shortfalls of nearly 20% this summer, which would force the country to impose drastic energy restrictions on homes and businesses.
From an environmental perspective, the prospect of government-mandated limitations on air conditioner usage isn't the worst news. The real problem is that Japan, which possesses few natural resources of its own, already imports 84% of its energy – running huge trade deficits in the process – a number that's sure to increase. And, while we'd all love to see Japan importing American-made wind turbines, its vanished nuclear power is realistically going to be replaced by fossil fuels. Japan is already the world's largest importer of liquified natural gas, and the nuclear closures will increase national demand for oil to 4.5 million barrels per day.
Japan, then, finds itself trapped in an uncomfortable dilemma. On one hand, the country is situated atop the most seismically unstable patch of crust in the world, and is shaken by 1,500 earthquakes a year. It's hard to imagine any stress test will conclusively deem all of the country's nuclear reactors earthquake-proof – as long as there are quakes and nukes, risk will follow. On top of that, and regardless of earthquake danger, nuclear power has been associated with a litany of environmental and health problems, including the leakage of radioactive materials into groundwater. There are legitimate reasons to oppose nuclear power even before Japan's exposure to earthquakes and tsunamis is thrown into the bargain.
On the other hand, the nuclear plants are already built; they provide abundant and cost-effective power (while nuclear facilities are exorbitantly expensive to construct, they're fairly cheap to operate); and, best of all, they're carbon-free. Can the atmosphere afford dramatically increased carbon emissions from the world's third-largest economy? For that matter, can Japan afford to pay an additional $100 million per day to import foreign oil? Perhaps the country and the climate would both be better off if the plants were reopened.
To environmentalists, the closure of nuclear plants may represent a huge win; yet Japan's newfound reliance on fossil fuels is a crushing defeat. We might prefer to see Japan replace its lost nuclear capacity with renewables – and indeed, wind and geothermal both have abundant potential for growth there – but, in 2012 and for the foreseeable future, the nation will be guzzling fossil fuels to make up for its shuttered power plants.
So what should Japan do? I leave it to you, dear readers, to debate the country's energy future in the comments. Who knows – perhaps the winner will be considered for the seat of Prime Minister. I hear there's a vacancy every year or so...