Japan's energy future: A Q&A with specialist Paul Scalise in Tokyo

A Q&A with energy specialist Paul Scalise about Japan's energy future and the uncertainties of going green.
A hot summer, a damaged nuclear plant that workers have only just entered (May 19) since the explosion in March and consumer uncertainty. (AP/Reuters/AP)

Paul Scalise is Nonresident Fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo and a contributing analyst to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Eurasia Group, and to Oxford Analytica.

His forthcoming book deals with the agenda-setting and decision-making behavior in the restructuring of Japan's electric power sector.

He spoke with CBC News producer Craig Dale, who is based in Tokyo.

Dale: How would you describe the situation at Fukushima Daiichi and the current plan to put the plant in cold shutdown by the beginning of 2012?

Scalise: I would describe it as dangerously optimistic. TEPCO's timeline seems to coincide with The Kan cabinet's decision to evaluate the return of evacuees to their homes by the beginning of 2012.

By announcing a cold shutdown by mid-January, TEPCO has inadvertently created a clear benchmark by which they can be judged: if these high expectations are not met now both TEPCO and the government will face additional political problems along with the real technical, environmental, and financial problems stemming from the crisis.

Dale: Energy demand is expected to peak at 55 gigawatts this summer in TEPCO's service region (Tokyo and surrounding area). As recently as the beginning of May, the company expected a shortfall of three GW. What can be done to make up for that shortfall?

Japan energy specialist Paul Scalise of Temple University. (Photo courtesy Paul Scalise)

Scalise: Bringing the nuclear reactors back online is both technologically and politically impossible before summer.

The key challenge is to correct the supply-demand imbalance by repairing earthquake damaged thermal power plants, restoring mothballed conventional thermal power plants, raising the load factors of online conventional power plants, increasing pumped hydro-electric storage, and buying smaller capacity generators from industrial customers.

The Ministry of Environment requires environment impact studies of target sites that usually take up to three years but the MOE has given TEPCO a special exemption. Once again, stability of supply and a fear of rolling blackouts trump environmental concerns.

They are indicative of where political priorities lie, actually.

Dale: How can other countries learn from Japan's energy crisis?

Scalise: There are three things to examine: the nuclear engineering flaws (if any), the primary energy position of similar countries in terms of supply and demand, and the media response to this energy crisis.

Examining the siting of nuclear power plants relative to urban areas, evacuation plans and tidal defenses, as well as the ability of nuclear power plants to withstand earthquakes of a very large magnitude, are all issues that engineers will certainly revisit in the months and years to come.

In addition, I am certain that strict liability of compensation measures from nuclear power damage-who bares the financial liability burden and why-will becomes another political topic in countries with large nuclear portfolios such as France and the U.S.

On the second issue, Japan is in a relatively unique-some would say dangerous- position given the global importance of its economy versus its dearth of natural resources.

Members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fact-finding team visit the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on May 27, 2011 to assess the tsunami damage and the safety lessons that could be learned from the accident. (REUTERS/IAEA)

Since the 1973 oil shock, nuclear power was viewed as the logical response from a country overly dependent on imported oil from the politically unstable Middle East. The consensus was Japan needed a stable supply of predictable electric power that would not be vulnerable to imported fossil fuel price fluctuations.

The irony was that few people anticipated the not-in-my-backyard anti-nuclear political movements that were born out of Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and other relatively less dramatic occurrences elsewhere, including Japan.

The direction of Japan's national energy policy in the wake of March 11 will be a useful leading indicator to what ordinary people value more: a stable supply of power at affordable prices with attached environmental risk or the increase of uncertain green technologies at greater economic cost to the consumer.

As for the third aspect, the media response to the crisis, I was disappointed in the sharp contrast of the reporting in the Japanese and Western media. The Western media coverage on cable news networks, for example, was somewhat over-the-top in their panic-inducing tone compared to the staid, informative, and professional coverage on NHK News.

If you wonder why most Japanese were so calm in the wake of such an unprecedented national disaster, I suspect that the quality of the media reporting in Japan was a large contributor to that impressive situation.

Dale: How will Japan's nuclear crisis affect its carbon reduction targets (25 per cent by 2020)?

Scalise: It is unlikely that former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama was ever really serious about those oft-repeated reduction targets. I published an article on that subject last year. I stand by it.

Overall, however, much depends on the fate of nuclear power. Given the uncertainties in renewable energy, Japan is turning once again-ironically-to fossil fuels in general, and liquefied natural gas in particular. That does not bode well for carbon reductions.

Remember, Japan's electric power companies sell more electricity (888,935 gigawatt-hours, GWh) than all of the power companies combined in the UK (327,939 GWh), or in Germany (515,899 GWh), or in Canada (501,307 GWh).

This shouldn't be surprising considering that Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. But its primary energy consumption is relatively large in other respects, too.

According to International Energy Agency, Japan is third largest consumer of coal in Asia (after China and India), the second largest consumer of oil in Asia (after China), and the largest consumer of natural gas in Asia.