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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Angst-fueled energy policy


LONDON — The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster has induced many people to question whether and how far the world should become dependent on atomic power.

The threat of radiation on the lives of people, especially children, resulting from an accident at a nuclear power station is real and must rightly be an important consideration in drawing up plans for power supplies in the future.

Those responsible for deciding the direction of energy policy and the most deserving investment recipients must take into account a variety of other factors and must assess carefully the cost/benefits of the choices available.

No source of energy is without cost or implications for our environment and there is no magic formula which will spell out the right balance.

Inevitably some politicians will want to give the greatest weight to safety factors and others to the environmental impact of differing methods of power generation, but all have to take into account the economic costs. Coal remains a major natural resource for power generation.

In many countries, including China and the United States, open cast as well as deep-pit mining provide a relatively cheap raw material for the production of electricity.

But burning coal is a major pollutant of the atmosphere and through carbon dioxide (CO?) emissions a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. Pollution and CO? can be reduced by the use of modern technology, but these can add significantly to costs.

World supplies of coal are sufficient to meet demand for many decades if not centuries, but are not infinite. Crude oil reserves remain huge both in the Middle East and elsewhere, and oil companies are finding further supplies through the drilling of new wells.

But reserves of oil are probably more limited than those of coal and are likely to become more expensive to tap in the future. The increased price of oil has made it economical to tap oil sands and drill in deep waters.

But oil is a major pollutant and emitter of CO? and as the recent BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows deep-water drilling can cause environmental disasters.

Oil is also a doubtful long term source because it is particularly susceptible to political and monopolistic pressures.

The OPEC cartel, although weaker than it was, still controls nearly a half of all oil supplies. Russia and Venezuela are mavericks and it would be unwise to rely on their remaining trustworthy long term suppliers.

Gas supplies and reserves have grown hugely in recent years. Of all hydro-carbons they are the least polluting, but supplies will eventually become scarcer and as Russia has shown pipelines can be cut and used to force up prices.

Alternative "green" methods of producing electricity are being developed. In the twentieth century the main alternative was hydroelectric, but this involved the building of huge dams that led to the destruction of whole communities and sometimes caused ecological disasters.

Most suitable sites have probably now been developed and there is a general consensus that hydroelectricity is unlikely to be able to meet increasing demands for 'green' electricity.

Wind power has become the focus of attention in the developed world. It does not pollute the atmosphere or emit CO?, but it does have environmental implications.

Headlands and moorlands are often scenic spots beloved by country lovers. Windmills emit disturbing noises when operating, especially in high winds.

Moreover, there can be no certainty that, when electricity demand is high, the wind will be blowing, or that, when the wind is blowing, electric power companies will need the power the windmills can produce.

Solar may be a better source of power than wind, but solar power generation cannot be relied on especially in northern climes. Solar panels can be disguised and need not be as disfiguring as wind turbines. Costs of panels have been dropping and solar is clearly going to be a major source of power in the 21st century.

In Britain and elsewhere in developed countries much effort is being put into developing machinery to harness wave and tidal power. There seems significant potential for further investment, but this will depend on how competitive wave and tidal power can be in relation to other forms of "green" energy.

An important alternative source of future power generation is likely to be nuclear fusion, which proponents argue will be much safer, more economical and "green" than nuclear fission used in current atomic power plants.

International research on power generation through nuclear fusion is being pursued at ITER in Caderache in southern France, where Motojima Osamu, an atomic energy specialist from Japan, is playing an important role.

The British thought many decades ago that they had found how to use nuclear fusion to generate electricity, but the great theoretical and practical difficulties have meant that this solution to the world's energy problems will not be available for some years yet. The first operational plant will, it is hoped, be ready by 2018.

In the long term we may be able to rely mainly on "green" forms of energy generation, but the world faces a real danger that if all current atomic power stations are taken out of service in the next decade or so as Germany has decided to do and as Japanese prefectures may wish to do, there will be significant power failures that could have a serious impact on manufacturers and consumers.

If government opts, instead of atomic power, for coal and other hydrocarbons, this will have a serious impact on global warming and climate change.

There are sadly many influential people especially in the United States and in Australia who continue to deny global warming or recognize that this is largely due to man-made CO? emissions, which it is their duty to try to mitigate.

Hugh Cortazzi, a career British diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.


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