With summer looming large, the Japanese government is scrambling to cope with the nation's energy shortage
STEVE AUSTIN | 2011/04/04
The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan recently have left widespread destruction and loss of life in their wake. Besides the health hazards and reconstruction that looms ahead for the Japanese, the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy has thrown light on the nation's energy policy which has aggravated their problems at this crucial time. Japan's dependence on oil and natural gas imports is a whopping 80 percent since its natural resources are extremely low. Since World War II, the country's rapid development has seen its energy requirements doubling every five years.
Oil : Japan's Achilles Heel?
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a fall-out of the US ban on oil exports to Japan earlier that year. This prompted Japan to try and takeover the Dutch East Indies, an oil rich region, and the attack on the US naval base was intended to keep them from interfering with the plans of conquest. Since facing defeat in World War II, Japan has not had an army but only 'self-defense forces'. This means that they are like an extension of the police force and are meant only to safeguard the nation. They cannot be deployed elsewhere. Many say that lack of preparedness and poor training is the reason why these forces could not do much good during the crises wrought by nature's fury.
The lack of a proper army is also seen as debilitating to the effort of securing oil resources from foreign countries. The current crisis in Japan has underlined this fact. Figures from charitable organizations such as the Red Cross indicate that none of the oil-rich countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE) have made an effort to donate fuel to the Japanese who are in dire need of it today. Lack of fuel in the ravaged nation is leading people to succumb to hypothermia because they do not have heating.
The long lines at the gas stations and stalled vehicles including ambulances are signs that the lack of fuel has led to a breakdown in the emergency services. The sick and wounded are unable to get to a hospital promptly while the fire trucks cannot douse fires in time because their gas tanks are empty.
Japan was well on the way to making nuclear power its primary source of energy. However, it is now abundantly evident that in times of disaster, the possibility of radiation posing a bigger danger to the population is very real.
Japan's Nuclear Energy Program
In 1950, over 50 percent of Japan's energy needs were met through coal and 30 percent through hydroelectricity with oil accounting for the rest. In 1954, the country embarked on its nuclear research program for peaceful purposes. In 1956, the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) and the Atomic Fuel Corporation were formed to encourage nuclear power development and utilization.
Japan imported its first nuclear reactor from UK in the mid 60s. Its first nuclear reactors were built in collaboration with American companies in the late 1970s and today Japan has 53 nuclear reactors. Soon enough, the Japanese were self-sufficient and today they even import reactor designs to other Asian countries and also to Europe. In the 1990s, the Atomic Fuel Corporation was renamed Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation, popularly known as PNC.
Following a couple of accidents and the PNC's lackluster response to these, the government modified the PNC to the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute or JNC. The JNC and JAERI were merged in 2005 to form the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).
Nuclear Power for Electricity
In the mid-70s, Japan generated 66 percent of its electricity through oil. However, following the two oil crises in the 1970s, Japan decided to find alternate means of generating electricity. The latest data indicates that coal contributes 28 percent of Japan's electricity needs with natural gas supplies at 26 percent and oil at 10 percent. Nuclear energy provides nearly 30 percent of the electricity in Japan. Before the natural disasters crippled the country, the target was to increase this to 41 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2030.
The Japanese are looking towards renewable energy options such as solar, wind, and bio fuels as crucial to the reconstruction process. Experts in the field have said that Japan has the capability to generate up to two-thirds of its energy requirements through renewable sources by the year 2050. The fact that hydropower, solar, wind, and geothermal have generated about 10 percent of Japan's electricity, is an indication that the target is achievable.
With summer looming large, the Japanese government is scrambling to cope with the nation's energy shortage. Measures such as introduction of daylight savings time and hiking the price of electricity are being considered. Blackouts are expected to continue for at least one year in an effort to minimize energy consumption. The shutting down of the nuclear plants has meant that there has been a decline of about a third of the electricity normally supplied to Tokyo. Demand for gas has also shot up as much as threefold.
Besides resolving the energy crisis that has hounded the nation for decades, Japan will have to focus on retaining its talent pool. Many qualified scientists, engineers, researchers, and professors are being lured by the attractive offers in the US and Europe and are choosing to run away from the devastation. However, it is crucial that these people stay on to help rebuild the ravaged nation.
Published on 2011/04/04 by STEVE AUSTIN