development energy transition towns

Japan’s post-Fukushima energy descent

Something rather remarkable has happened in Japan in the last year. As we all know, Japan’s East coast was hit by a devastating tsunami in March 2011. Several towns and cities were inundated, over 15,000 people died, and the world looked on as the news story morphed from earthquake to nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. The threat of nuclear disaster spooked the nation, and the government immediately announced a review of its energy policy.

Several things followed. First, plans to replace existing nuclear power stations were canned. A nuclear power station on an earthquake fault line was closed. Then the government announced ‘stress tests’ for all nuclear power stations to check their safety levels. The upshot of this is that Japan has been systematically switching off its nuclear power stations, one at a time, since this time last year. Out of 54, there were just 11 running by January. There is now one left in operation, and that is due to shut down in May. As the debate about whether to switch any of the others back on continues, the chances are that Japan will have essentially gone nuclear-free within a year.

What’s remarkable about this is that Japan’s nuclear sector accounted for 30% of its electricity. I can hardly imagine the chaos if Britain decided to switch off a quarter of its generating capacity, but Japan appears to have done exactly that. Last summer the government told heavy industries that they would be expected to reduce their electricity by 25%, and households by 20%. Some factories chose to start running at night to avoid peak time. There have been planned power cuts to ration electricity. People have learned to live with the blackouts.

Despite the hardships, there is major opposition to turning the nuclear power stations back on. Nuclear power is politically toxic, but then so are power cuts. The economy will suffer, and it remains to be seen whether Japan’s energy crisis turns out to be good or bad for the environment in the longer term. If nuclear capacity is replaced with gas or coal, CO2 emissions will rise and nothing will be gained. If there’s a boom in renewable energy, Japan could really model energy transformation to the world. So far it’s a bit of both. LPG imports have risen by 28% and coal imports by 8%, but a major programme of feed-in tariffs has been announced and there’s a surge of investment towards geothermal. We will have to wait and see.

What’s interesting for now is that Japan has essentially carried out an emergency energy descent. This is something every country needs to do in response to climate change and resource depletion. Over the next few decades, all industrialised countries are going to have to reduce their energy use, and by considerably more than 25%. We hope we’ll be able to do it over many years, but there are plenty of potential crises that could force us to act faster. It’s important that we learn from those that have experienced energy crises before. Cuba’s ‘special period‘ is a notable one, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba entirely isolated and without a source of oil imports. Japan is providing us with another case study as we speak.

Of course, it’s better to be prepared, and make your plans in advance. And thankfully there’s a large and dynamic movement working on that already. Transition Towns are all about developing Energy Descent Action Plans for towns and villages – a planned, strategic decrease in local energy use that makes towns more resilient to shocks. If you’re not involved in your local Transition Town initiative yet, go and see what’s happening near you.


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