Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Future Of Nuclear, And Of Japan

You can't beat for drama the struggle of Japanese operators to manage the emergency cool-down of nuclear reactors in the tsunami zone. For the things that matter most, though—life and safety—the nuclear battle has been a sideshow. Hundreds were feared dead when entire trains went missing. Whole villages were wiped out with the loss of thousands of inhabitants. So far one worker at one nuclear plant is known to have died in a hydrogen explosion and several others have exhibited symptoms of radiation poisoning.

As for environmental degradation, video testifies to the brown murk that the tsunami waters became when they crossed into land. An infinity of contaminants—sewage, fuels, lubricants, cleaning solvents—have been scattered across the Earth and into aquifers. Radiation releases, meanwhile, haven't been a serious threat to anyone but the plant's brave workers.

Just under a decade ago, when Americans were worried about the vulnerability of nuclear plants to deliberate terrorist destruction, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz gave a notable speech: "In general, I do not believe nuclear power is being portrayed in a balanced manner. . . . This is probably the fault of all of us who know better since there have been strong currents for not mentioning consequences [of nuclear accidents] out loud."

He proceeded to lay out the consequences of Chernobyl, a uniquely bad nuclear accident, in which a graphite core reactor burned in the open air for more than a week. Along with 59 firemen and workers who lost their lives, the failure to evacuate or take other precautionary steps led to 1,800 thyroid cancer cases among children, though fewer than a dozen deaths. "Leukemia has been expected to be among the early primary latent health effects seen among those exposed to significant amounts of radiation," Mr. Diaz continued, "yet excess cases of leukemia that can be attributed to Chernobyl have not been detected."

Do not pretty up what Mr. Diaz was saying. He was not offering risk-free energy. Now think about Japan. It suffered its worst earthquake in perhaps 1,100 years, followed by a direct-hit tsunami on two nuclear plants. Plenty of other industrial systems on which the Japanese rely—transportation, energy, water, food, medical, public safety—were overwhelmed and failed. A mostly contained meltdown of one or more reactors would not be the worst event of the month.

In a full or partial meltdown, you don't really know what you will get unless you know the condition of the containment structure and, even more, what's going on inside it, especially in terms of fluids and gases that might have to be vented. Complicating matters in Japan's case is also the failed cooling of spent fuel, contributing to a burst of emissions that alarmed but didn't threaten the wider public. Tokyo Electric has an almighty mess to clean up, but even in circumstances compounded by a region-wide natural disaster a Chernobyl-scale release seems likely to be avoided—in which case this year's deaths from nuclear power will be less than those from coal-mining accidents.

So here's a question: The world has gas and coal with which to produce electricity. Nuclear is a hot-house plant, requiring lots of government support. Environmental groups, with their perhaps unmerited moral authority, have insisted for years that curbing carbon is the greatest human challenge, and those groups that haven't opted for escapism, insisting wind and solar somehow can make up the difference, have quietly recognized that the only alternative to fossil energy is nuclear.

Where will these groups be in the morning? China and India, two fast-growing producers of greenhouse gases, have dozens of nuclear plants planned or under construction. India being a democracy, that country is particularly ripe to be turned off course by political reaction to Japan. If they believe their climate rhetoric, will environmentalists speak up in favor of nuclear realism or will they succumb to the fund-raising and media lure of antinuclear panic?

We suspect we already know the answer. In the unlikely event the world was ever going to make a concerted dent in CO2 output, nuclear was the key. Let's just guess this possibility is now gone, for better or worse.

On a slightly different subject, the Sendai catastrophe throws into relief the continuing enigma of the Japanese economy. By official data, Japan has stagnated for two decades, growing at barely 1% a year. The population is shrinking. Pork-barrel construction spending seems to be bankrupting the public purse. Government debt appears to be huge and out of control.

At the same time, Japan is more of an export powerhouse than ever, its current account surplus having quintupled since the heyday of Japan Inc. in the late 1980s. Public services are first-rate. The yen is strong. Interest rates are low. The Japanese are healthy and well-supplied with the latest and best of everything. For purveyors of luxury brands Japan remains their superlative market. The reported unemployment rate is less than 5%.

One theory is that Japan has been lying about its growth rate to allay protectionist blowback. The malaise of Japan exists mainly in the eyes of Western beholders, who fail to grasp the enduring dynamism of its state-directed, bank-centric, export-oriented capitalism. This theory, while dubious to many of us, is about to get a fascinating and poignant test as Tokyo goes on a fresh borrowing and spending binge to rebuild.

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