Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The inherent clean energy opportunity in Japan


T
his is not meant as any kind of a cynical-jab at the Japanese people, looking at them as some tool for change. The earthquake and subsequent nuclear accidents that are unfolding are a horrific reminder of how tenuous modern life is: in a matter of just five minutes, everything on the Japanese mainland changed forever.

At this point, we have no idea how many people have died or will die as a result of what's been reported as an 8.4 to 8.9 scale earthquake, possibly the worst in their entire recorded history.

The most recent one on roughly the same scale occurred in 1923, killing as many as 140,000 people. But the Japanese were better prepared for a recurrence...except that you can never truly prepare for one when it comes to a nuclear power plant. Nuclear power will always be vulnerable to natural disasters, social upheavals, and most certainly,
inevitable social collapse since all civilizations end one day.

The half-lives of most radioactive byproducts of nuclear power will far-exceed the lifespan of any civilization, reason enough to begin a general decommissioning of all existing plants, the neutralization of the waste ("byproducts," and to the best of our abilities), and a rapid conversion over to a constellation of clean or cleaner energy sources, mainly natural and renewable ones. This nuclear disaster hasn't even played-out yet, but I see very real opportunities that need to be grasped, and immediately, by the Japanese public as well as the world community, outside of the corridors of power.

As the Japanese people and their rescuers from their government and from around the world are exposed to radioactive contamination, we need to realize that we have yet another opening here: the outrage that's inevitably coming on the mainland--perhaps even from neighboring countries--is going to be profound. As always, there are cultural, and therefore, historical reasons for this.

For those with a short memory, it should be remembered that the Japanese are the only nation on earth to have atomic weapons directed upon them. They have not forgotten this by a long-shot, and the terrible irony of this catastrophe-upon-a-catastrophe will not be lost on them as it surely is on most Americans, willfully, since we're the ones who dropped two atomic bombs on them in 1945.

We tend to forget about our own war crimes here in the United States, our victims however, do not.

There will be a very loud cry indeed in Japan to decommission these nuclear plants because they have failed every test. The plants themselves were already strongly opposed, but as it usually happens, times were better and they public will was more neutral and the opposition's warnings were ignored. There was, after all, a lot of money to be made, and power demands were growing and still are. That's fine and well, but events have a way of changing things, and catastrophes borne out of both natural disaster and human incompetence and corruption lead to a perception of misrule. As often is the case, that perception is usually accurate.

Prediction: there will be a major groundswell coming against further development and operation of nuclear power on the Japanese mainland. A call for major, wide-scale investment in clean and renewable sources of energy will be heard throughout the island nation. If it reaches the level of mass-production, it will have a global impact since Japan is the third largest developed economy in the world, one of the world's skilled "workshops," like Germany.

Even with this disaster, Japan could be poised to lead the way towards a new and decisive direction, towards the real world implementation of alternative energy sources that are well outside of the box. With China in close-proximity, production in both nations could point to very affordable solar technologies, as just one example.

This is all a wait-and-see, to be sure, since we don't know how bad this nuclear disaster is going get. But I think there are great opportunities here for Japan and the world, coming out of their worst period since WWII, their (and our) greatest challenge. As fate would have it, Wikileaks has uncovered and released one of the cache of American State Department cables, and they purport to contain a passage of Japanese government officials discussing cover-ups of previous nuclear accidents. When-and-if the smokes clears soon, the Japanese people will learn of this; there will be a wide demand for explanations, with the predictable outrage, perhaps even riots.

All we lack is the will since an outraged citizenry that won't have it anymore is an irresistible social force that cannot be held back any longer.