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Is Nuclear Power Really a Trump Card Against Global Warming?

by TAKASHI HIROSE

In recent years there seemed to be a nuclear power renaissance. One reason for this has been the adoption by its promoters of the theme of global warming, and their claim that nuclear power is clean energy because it does not produce carbon emissions.  But is nuclear power in fact the clean-energy solution its promoters claim?

Only one third of the heat energy produced in a nuclear reactor is transformed into electricity.  In Japan, the remaining two thirds of the energy that remains in the water vapor– that is, twice as much energy as contained in the generated electricity – is disposed of in the sea.  In the cooling system, seawater is used to cool the water vapor, which condenses again to water and is circulated through the reactor once again.  This heated seawater is called “thermal discharge”.  How much heat does this thermal discharge carry into the sea?  The amount is startling.

Before the Fukushima accident, that is, at the end of 2010, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were producing a total of 49,112,000 kilowatts of electricity.  So every day they were throwing away twice that much, approximately 100,000,000 kilowatts of energy, in the form of heat, into the sea.

This means that every day they were pumping into the sea energy equivalent to 100 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The Hiroshima bomb destroyed the city in an instant and ended the lives of some 140,000 people, but when energy 100 times that great is “dropped” into the sea daily, what effect does that have?  That it would not be destructive of the ocean’s ecology is unimaginable.  Before saying that “nuclear power plants supply one third of the demand for electricity”, it needs to be said that “twice as much energy as the electricity they produce is used to heat up the sea.”

I want to ask, what kind of global warming debate is it that never discusses this fact?  In Japan, the number one global warming agent is the nuclear power plants.

After I left the company I was working for, I spent a long time translating medical books.  In the 1970s I was translating books depicting the suffering of people whose health was damaged by environmental pollution, and at the same time through an agent was accepting work from industry.  At that time I received a request from

TEPCO to translate a 1970s report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  In it was the following passage.

“When thermal discharge from nuclear power plants is released into the sea, the heat does not immediately disperse.  Rather it concentrates and remains suspended in what are called “hot spots”.  For this reason it has a very large effect on sea life near the shore.  In the shallows, even a difference of two or three degrees can kill fish eggs or young fish.”

I translated this English correctly and delivered the manuscript to TEPCO.  The report of which it was a part was apparently suppressed within the company.  To this day it has never appeared.

Moreover, the claim that nuclear power is a cheap form of energy is also untrue.  Nuclear power plants are located far from the users of the electricity, so they require extraordinarily long transmission systems (In 1964 the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) stipulated that “Dangerous nuclear power plants must not be located in heavily populated areas”).  The nuclear power plants that deliver electricity  to the capital are the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini reactors, Niigata Prefecture’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactor, and Ibaragi Prefecture’s Tokai Daini reactor.   The 14 nuclear power plants sending electricity to the Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe) area are lined up along the faraway shore of the Japan Sea at Wakasa Bay, in Fukui Prefecture. When you take into account the transmission systems connecting the power plants with the metropolitan areas they serve, you cannot call it an inexpensive source of electricity.

Without Nuclear Power, Will There Be Blackouts?

After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, TEPCO carried out planned blackouts, and the Kan Naoto administration, “in order to avoid a major blackout due to electricity shortages in the summer months” is considering enacting measures enforcing limits on electricity consumption for the first time since the oil shock of 1974. This deep-seated “blackout fear” held by so many seems to be grounded in the idea that we must continue gingerly to maintain the nuclear power industry, which advertises itself as providing one-third of the country’s electricity. What I see in the opinion polls is the attitude, I don’t like living with nuclear power plants, but without them there is no way to get the electricity, so there’s nothing to be done because like they say, you can’t exchange your back for your belly.

This is a huge misunderstanding that must be corrected.

A survey by year of the generating capacity of Japan’s main sources of electrical power compared with the total amount of electricity demand tells a different story.  In no year has the peak demand for electricity – that is, the demand for electricity in the hours between 2 and 3pm on the hottest days of summer – exceeded what could be provided by the combination of fossil fuel and water powered generators.   Moreover, the highest recorded peak demand was in 2001, and has never been surpassed in the ten years since then.  Rather, with the economic downturn, demand for electricity fell in 2008 and 2009.

From whence, then, comes the misunderstanding that nuclear power plants supply one third of the country’s electricity, and that without them there would be blackouts?.  The answer sounds like a joke, but it is true: it is that while Japan has a very large capability for generating electricity from natural gas, these facilities have been intentionally kept operating at only 50-60 per cent of capacity.  Among the major sources of electricity used in the advanced countries, natural gas is the cleanest.  Then there are the petroleum powered plants; amazingly they are operating at only 10 to 20 per cent of their capacity.  (This figure may sound unbelievable, but since the 1970s Oil Shock, most of the developed countries have a policy of reducing oil consumption as far as possible.  Japan’s fossil fuel power plants use mainly coal and natural gas.) The idea that without nuclear power there would be blackouts is nonsense.

The reason TEPCO carried out intentional blackouts after the earthquake is that the fossil fuel reactors in the region also suffered temporary damage. No doubt there was also difficulty delivering fuel.  But repairing fossil fuel power plants is nowhere near as difficult at repairing nuclear power plants.  It’s just a matter of replacing damaged parts.  Once repair work begins, it doesn’t take long before the plant is operating again.  And once the fossil fuel plants are back on line, electricity demand is no problem.

After its nuclear plants were so badly damaged, TEPCO should have put its natural gas and petroleum plants into full operation, but it did not.  Rather it carried out intentional blackouts, bringing confusion to the metropolitan area and bringing losses both to industry and to private citizens.  In this it did not fulfill its responsibility as an electricity provider, and revealed a fundamental problem.  And now we hear  everywhere language fanning the fear of summertime blackouts, but this is only a false  rumor being spread by people who know nothing of electrical power generation. (Translators note: in fact in the summer since this was written, there were no electrical blackouts in Japan.)

A natural gas power plant can be built in a few months.  This was made clear in an article appearing the April 6, 2011 edition of Gasu Energii Shinbun (Gas Energy News) by Ishii Akira, head of the Energy and Environment Research Center, titled “After Fukushima, the Age of Natural Gas”.  In this article, Ishii explains Japan’s energy situation from the standpoint of a professional.  The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident took place on March 11.  Why didn’t TEPCO begin immediately to take action to ensure that there would be no electrical shortage?  If they couldn’t get it done in time, why did they not immediately ask the world’s largest manufacturer of natural gas power plants, America’s General Electric (GE) to do it for them?  An electric company that can’t supply electricity to the public has no right to be called an electric company.

Nuclear power supporters will argue that the supply of natural gas is limited.  But this too is the outdated opinion of one who does not know the energy industry.  As Ishii Akira pointed out in an article of Feb 2, 2011 in Gas Energy News, new sources of natural gas are being discovered one after another all over the world.  In the Mediterranean Sea, offshore from Madagascar, under the sea to the east of India, on the continental shelf in northwestern Australia, in Brazil, in Turkmenistan – in the ten years up to 2009 the world’s known supply of underground deposits has increased by close to 30 per cent.  In addition to this natural gas supply, new, so-called non-traditional gases such as coal bed methane, tight sand gas, shale gas, and methane hydrate are being developed one after another.  According to Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (which is dedicated to locating natural resources for Japan) the underground reserves of these new forms of natural gas total more than 922 trillion cubic meters, more than five times the reserves of traditional natural gas. No doubt there will be future discoveries one after another, so I would say that we have enough gas reserves alone to last well over 200 years.

Translated by Douglas Lummis, ideaspeddler@gmail.com

Takashi Hirose can be contacted at takhi@jcom.home.ne.jp

This is excerpted from the concluding chapter of Takashi Hirose 
Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster now available in English from Amazon Kindle Books.

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch

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