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Sunday, May 22, 2011
A less nuclear future
On May 14, sources at Tokyo Electric Power Co. released information that would change the course of future energy policy in Japan. They said that on the night of March 11, high-level radiation of 300 millisieverts per hour was detected inside a containment building in the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, suggesting that the earthquake itself caused major damage to the No. 1 reactor's pressure vessel or piping — not the unusually devastating tsunami, as the company had previously maintained.
This belated revelation shows that in an earthquake-prone country like Japan the safety of nuclear plants can never really be assured. No matter how high new tsunami walls are built, earthquakes will happen again.
That revelation casts light on the cost of upgrading the plants. Already, many of Japan's nuclear plants are offline because of routine maintenance, safety checks and general repairs. The total cost of new anti-earthquake and tsunami prevention measures, and of future repairs after another quake, is incalculable.
That money could be better spent investing in renewable resources. A phased-in support of alternative energy and careful investment in new energy sources will be a more cost-effective long-term use of funds. It stimulates the economy by providing jobs that continue, rather than funding dead-end repairs.
Setting clear goals for increasing the percentage of the country's energy that comes from renewable sources, as well as government support for new energy resources, should become a top priority.
The transition will not be easy or quick. Like any detoxification program, it will take time and effort by individuals and industry to cut back on power usage. Most people have been willing to do so thus far. If the goal of supporting new energy policy with enthusiasm can be clarified, the collective effort to cut back and change patterns of usage will only improve.
Increasing the defenses against tsunami is a short-term solution that does not resolve the real danger — the risk of more damage from future earthquakes. Now that the Tepco sources have hinted that equipment and facilities were damaged before the tsunami, efforts need to be shifted toward more substantial changes in the direction of future energy policy.
The past half-century of nuclear power was one attempt to provide energy for Japan's consumption. It worked for a while, until, of course, it no longer worked. Now is the time to begin the arduous process of moving towards safer, renewable, and efficient energy sources.