Japan from the inside out

Serious criticism

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 1, 2011

“Where there is no market economy, the best-intentioned provisions of constitutions and laws remain a dead letter.”
– Ludwig von Mises

WRITING on a site called The Daily, Sikha Dalmia succinctly identifies the real problem with Fukushima:

The liability cap (in the event of an accident) effectively privatizes the profits of nuclear and socializes the risk. It uses taxpayer money to diminish the industry’s concern with safety — which government regulations can’t restore. In 2008, Tokyo actually started offering bigger subsidies to communities that agreed to fewer inspections. The problem of regulatory capture is particularly endemic in Japan given that regulators seek industry jobs upon retirement, and hence often cozy up to companies they are supposed to oversee.

Nuclear’s advocates argue that, if anything, Fukushima testifies to just how safe nuclear is given that the reactor reportedly shut down as designed in the face of a 9-magnitude earthquake even though it was built for only 7.5-magnitude. Had a freak tsunami not knocked out the backup generator needed to cool down the fuel rods, none of this would have happened.

Perhaps. But had the industry been underwritten by private companies that risk getting wiped out by lax procedures instead of a government that risks nothing, might they not have refused to insure a reactor in an earthquake-prone zone or demanded better seismological studies than those available or ensured that backup generators were built to withstand a tsunami?

Exactly. The problem he cites–a form of crony capitalism–is not exclusive to Japan, but he goes to the core of the issue when few others are aware of it.

He might have given more thought to some aspects of the article. Such as:

Nuclear meets about a third of Japan’s energy needs (compared to 20 percent in America) not because it is more competitive than the alternatives; it is not. Nuclear’s exorbitant upfront capital costs and long — and uncertain — lead times make it every bit as unattractive to investors in Japan as elsewhere, especially compared to other fuels.

It might not be more competitive than other energy sources, but some explanatory data instead of an unsupported declarative statement would have been helpful.

He also too blithely dismisses Japan’s lack of energy resources:

But nuclear appeals to Japan’s mercantilist rulers, who, since the mid-’60s, have regarded the country’s lack of indigenous energy resources as a major strategic vulnerability that must be corrected at all cost.

He neither examines, nor even mentions, Japan’s alternative. Then again, no one could be expected to mention the efforts underway to employ other energy sources, because they are seldom mentioned in English. Miyazaki Prefecture, for example, intends to become a center for solar power generation, and a so-called “mega solar power plant” has just been built on the site of the former test track for maglev vehicles in Tsuno. There are still serious drawbacks with energy sources of this type, however. Despite the mega designation, its annual output will be enough for only 300 households.

As Mr. Dalmia notes, political considerations pervert the market’s natural ability to take safety issues into account. But we will have made progress if people begin to understand that Big Business ≠ The Market, that the market will naturally gravitate to better solutions, and that it will determine of itself whether those solutions are viable. For example, Matt Ridley points out the potential advantages of thorium:

“Thorium has lots of advantages as a nuclear fuel. There is four times as much of it as uranium; it is more easily handled and processed; it “breeds” its own fuel by creating uranium 233 continuously and can produce about 90 times as much energy from the same quantity of fuel; its reactions produce no plutonium or other bomb-making raw material; and it generates much less waste, with a much shorter half life until it becomes safe, so the waste can be stored for centuries rather than millennia.”

There’s only one way to find out whether it is a better means of providing energy, and putting bumper stickers with such slogans as “Split Wood, Not Atoms” on your auto isn’t it.

9 Responses to “Serious criticism”

  1. RMilner said

    It has always surprised me that Japan does not make more use of geothermal energy, onsen excepted of course.

    Frankly, the “crony capitalism” described is endemic in most western countries. The USA, UK and Eire are all suffering from a banking regulatory system which privatised the profits while spreading the risk to the whole public.

  2. toadold said

    So far all of the “alternative energy” schemes that I’ve seen are low bang for the buck and just as dangerous to life as nukes and fossil fuels. They depend on rare earth elements that have to be mined and China has just raised the price on those. Biomass ends up being subsidized and causes the price of food to rise.
    In the US regulations and lawfare from the watermelons have inhibited safer nuclear plants from being built. Pebble bed, sodium cooled, and other designs. The Toshiba/WestingHouse AP-100 mini nuke plants would solve a lot problems. You could build a distributed power system instead of having primary sources concentrated in a small area. Excuse me I’m hobby horsing again.

  3. I pretty much agree with you. But for now I don’t think anyone is listening.

    Have you seen this:

    I think Prime Minister Kan has now stated he will pause and think about these plans, but my guess is they will push forward if at all possible.

    Basically, the goal is to make Japan independent by making it totally dependent on nuclear energy.

    Even though you might disagree with some of the author’s view point, a really important article on this is here:

    I think it’s pretty obvious that dangers have and still exist, and as you note, via crony capitalism they are just being ignored:

  4. toadold said

    “As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
    As I walked out on the streets one day.
    I spied a young intellectual all wrapped in white linen,
    all wrapped in white linen and as cold as the clay.
    He said, “I see by your outfit that you are an intellectual.”
    I said, “I see by your outfit that you are one to.”
    So if you got an outfit we could all be intellectuals,
    and sit on our asses and tell the world what to do.”

  5. toadold said

    Off topic: I was talking with a reference librarian the last time I went in, the reference computer was bogging down for some reason. I ask her about some books and materials on Japan and the language. She asked me if I was planning a trip and I told her no, but now wouldn’t be a bad time to go really. She said she went to France during the Chernobyl scare when tourists were cancelling trips to Europe out of fear and about the wonderful time that she had.
    In this article an expat complains about the exaggeration of danger that the overseas press has indulged in and the damage it has done to the tourist industry on the island she lives on.

  6. Andrew in Ezo said

    The effect has been telling in terms of tourist numbers here in Sapporo. There are effectively zero Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean tourists here, when before the shopping arcades were teeming with them (especially Chinese) buying gifts and cold medicine by the cartload. I joked with my friend that at least perhaps the Chinese will no longer be interested in buying up water rights in Niseko anymore…

  7. toadold said

    I thought the reason to go to Sapporo was to drink the beer? Some beer and Japanese curry should pretty much make you immune to radiation.
    T: Plenty of other reasons, including skiing and winter sports. Japanese like to go in the summer because it isn’t as muggy as the rest of the country. One local high school likes to go there for its annual class trip.

    – A.

  8. PaxAmericana said

    “its reactions produce no plutonium or other bomb-making raw material”

    Cynically speaking, doesn’t that defeat one of the purposes of nuclear power? It means that one cannot be pushed around or attacked, at least to some extent. Isn’t the general posture of Japan that they “do not have nukes, but could create them fairly quickly?” One could surmise that having this card in dealing with China or North Korea must be worth quite a bit to the Japanese Establishment.

  9. […] a world with less energy demand? Yes, it’s called hunter-gathering. Ampontan brings up an alternative fuel, thorium. But, OK, White might be right, maybe smaller is […]

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