Japan Finds Out What Happens When Electricity Runs Low

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With 80 perent of Japan's nuclear reactors shut down in the wake of the meltdown at Fukushima, the country is having a tough time getting back on its feet. Nuclear power had been a major part of Japan's energy mix, but with public distrust of reactors running about as high as industry's demand for power, the government is finding itself in a bind. 


Today, Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yoshio Hachiro was forced to resign just nine days into the job. According to Bloomberg, Hachiro came "under fire for using 'towns of death' to describe the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant and joking about radiation."

Hachiro was in charge of convincing the public that nuclear energy should continue to power a big chunk of Japan's grid. Talk about a tough job. But few alternatives exist for the country -- or any country, really -- that wants to quickly switch power sources. Plants take time to build, in some cases many years. And that's under the best of circumstances. Right now, Japan's economy is tanking, and that makes it even harder to get things done.

It's easy to blame individual officials or see the import of particular actions (e.g. a bad joke) in these kinds of problems. But I'd argue that they are less important than they appear. As with increasing climate risks, when you've got major energy problems, suddenly everyone starts to look bad. All your instincts -- honed over years and years of public service -- tell you that one set of behaviors should work, and then it doesn't. That's because the very bedrock (or baselines, if you will) of your society has changed and you're playing existential catchup.



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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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