More on Japan's Energy Death Spiral and the Illusion of a Saudi Oil Option

220px-Nobuo_Tanaka_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_2011.jpgA few days ago, I shared the key elements of a discussion I had with immediate past International Energy Agency Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka about his concerns about Japan's energy fragility at the moment. 


The bottom line from the talk was that Tanaka, now Global Associate for Energy Security and Sustainability at Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, was that Japan needed to get its nuclear energy production back online, that it could not now afford the allergy that has been shutting down Japan's 54 nuclear energy reactors -- even despite the tragedy at the Fukushima facility after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Sendai region.  He also argued that America could help its often taken-for-granted ally by offering sale of its surplus liquefied natural gas (LNG) and could help restore Japanese citizens' trust in their own government and nuclear energy authorities by establishing a peer-level ad hoc commission of US nuclear experts and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioners.

I had a number of interesting responses to the piece that I want to share.

The first of this is from Nobuo Tanaka himself who said he agreed with the key tenets of my article but that I actually underestimated (unintentionally) another weak pillar of Japan's energy options -- particularly if a crisis with Iran further escalates. 

Tanaka writes:

Steve.  I read your article carefully again, and I now understand your calculation of total shortage of 800kbd.  Nuclear replacement needed of 500kbd plus Iranian 300kbd*.  This is fine.

But situation can be worse because if Hormuz strait is blocked, Japan will lose 4 million bd rather than 300kbd of Iranian oil.  I said that Saudi Arabia cannot help Japan because they cannot send oil through Hormuz. 

But otherwise this article is strong and correct.

Nobuo TANAKA

Two other informed readers, however, took issue with Nobuo Tanaka's calculations of the 'real costs' of nuclear energy -- and got a bit more expansive about their own critique of the Japanese government and private sector in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

One reader writes:

I just came back from Japan, and having visited two of the tsunami devastated cities of Kesennuma and Ishinomaki north of Sendai, I am happy to report that recovery is ongoing.
But in terms of Mr. Tanaka's take on Japan's Energy stituation, I am wondering if you did not miss something, namely, if he did not try to:
 
a) Acknowledge that past energy policies (before 3.11) promoting nuclear power generation as the center piece was fool hardy.

b) Recognize the enormity of the damage and suffering that the disaster at Fukushima #1 has caused not just to the immediate people affected, but the entire national psyche.

c) Express some sympathy and even remorse for the suffering of the 100,000 or so people that had to be evacuated with literary "clothes on their backs".
The energy equation of not running 40 or more nuclear reactors at any given time is straight forward--any high school kid can do the calculation, i.e. the Government and the people know that part of the cost.

Perhaps what Mr. Tanaka, METI and TEPCO does not disclose and admit is what the people and the Governors (as politicians) are painfully aware of, namely, that the status and consequence of the complete meltdown of Units 1, 2 and 3 as well as the massive pile of spent fuel of Unit 4 are still unclear.  Hence, it is only sensible and reasonable to wait until the facts are known.

Steve, I need not remind you that Japan is a democracy and the Governors are elected officials who represent the voters, while the bureaucrats such as Mr. Tanaka are not.  Instead of scaring the people of Japan with scenarios of dire consequences if they do not revive METI's failed (some room for argument?) nuclear energy policies, he could listen to their concerns and even urge his former colleagues in METI to map out a different energy path (non-nuclear or greatly reduced nuclear) for Japan--a positive role for METI.

Another reader offers this critique:

Thanks for the article.

I don't have time to reply in detail, but Tanaka's argument for nuclear power is very typical of the kind of scare tactics (``Japanese manufacturing may leave the country'') the nuclear power lobby is using to try and get the nuclear power plants back on.

As Tetsunari Iida of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (and an advisor to numerous local governments as well as the Kan administration) says: ``Go ahead''. He calls the bluff of people like Tanaka in an excellent book refuting the kind of arguments the pro-nuclear lobby is making, showing that the odds of Japanese large firms pulling up stakes and leaving the country because of high fuel prices over the coming months, or even years, are slim because, for most of them, there really is nowhere else to go and few if any have the money to completely start over in a foreign country. Add to that the various political risks and cultural difficulties, Iida-san convincingly argues that the argumentJ apanese firms will pull up stakes is just hot air.

Second, Tanaka probably told you something like "nuclear power costs only five or six yen per kilowatt hour''. That's the official figure, and it's simply not correct. If you add the hidden costs of waste disposal (not included in either METI's or IEA's official calculations but passed along to consumers in each and every monthly utility bill) plus all of the other subsidies needed to build plants, the real cost, according to one study done by an economic professor at Ritsumeikan and now widely endorsed by other economists, is around 15 yen per kilowatt/hour, about the price of wind.

The reaility is nuclear [energy] was a heavily subsidized industry, and this allowed for overproduction and overcapacity, and for hiding the true cost. Everybody benifitted, of course. but now the public and Japan's service and light manufacturing industries, which don't use huge amounts of electricity, want a more objective cost analysis, and an objective series of projections of what the costs are going to be with, or without, nuclear. Instead, they get scare tactics from Keidanren, the steel lobby, the utilities, and people like Tanaka.

As for the mid to long-term future, ask anybody a series of simple questions: Upon what economic statistics and future projections do Japanese government and utility officials make predictions about short, mid, and long-term energy demand? Is there an assumed annual GDP for this year, next year, and the next 10 or 20 years? Do they take into account the fact Japan's population is aging and the number of working age Japanese is dropping with each year? Do they assume the population of 127 million people will remain the same (presumably with massive foreign immigration) over the coming decades? Does fewer Japanese, either in the workplace or in general, mean more total electrictiy consumption or less? For two decades, I've been trying to get answers to the above questions, and nobody seems to really know, including the IEA officials I spoke to.

I don't have time here to write in detail about renewable energy, aging nuclear plants and the varies risks, and increasing costs which will be passed along to consumers, of operating them, etc. I'm sure Tanaka-san believes in his cause. And yes, the short term for some heavy industries (like those that support the IEA) is going to be painful.

But companies like Sharp, Sanyo, Kyocera, and even Toshiba and Mitsubishi see massive potential for non-nuclear energies and are quietly investing in them. The energy future for Japan, in my opinion, is not nearly as dire as Tanaka-san depicts it if everyone outside the nuclear village ignores its warnings and calmly moves forward.

Am I optimstic this will happen? No, to be truthful. However, with a bit of luck, only one or two nuclear plants will come back on in the short-term (those providing power to heavily industrialized areas that are the least energy efficient) and, over the next decade or so, Japan will ease into non-fossil fuel energies. As a nation that imports the vast majority of its energy needs, Japan has far more incentive than most others to become truly self-sufficient, and when Japanese politicians finally realize that Japanese-produced renewable energy allows them to play the ``patriotism'' card (which some like Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto are already doing) then things are going to get very interesting.

Finally, let me point out I do agree with many of the things Tanaka-san said in the latter part of the piece. I, too, hope some sort of agreement between the U.S. and Japan can be worked out to send LNG from the U.S. to Japan, and I'm following that debate as closely as I can.

These are both highly thoughtful and informed counter-points to Nobuo Tanaka's frame on Japan's dire energy situation -- and like legislators say on the floor of the US Senate, I wanted to offer these for the record.

My sense from my discussion with Tanaka and knowing his take on energy options, that what is driving him now is a risk calculation based on Japan's dependence on external energy inputs, the scale of Japan's dependence, and the possibility that serious disruptions could occur in the near term.  Long term, lots of things could change -- but if serious disruptions occur in the near term, Japan could be facing very bleak times.

However, my own question -- unanswered at the time of this writing -- is that if Japan has a year's worth of strategic oil supplies stockpiled -- which I believe it does, couldn't Japan after an Iranian oil shock use that supply and then in the most dire of situations return the nuclear energy facilities to full operation?

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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