Responding to the nuclear disaster is even harder [for Japan]. Mr Kan had initially sought to stay in power until the Fukushima nuclear plant has stabilised its reactors and reached a state of “cold shutdown”. But the timetable for that may already have slipped into 2012, which is too distant for those trying to oust him. Not only is Fukushima Dai-ichi’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), struggling to keep the plant under control. It is also stretched by the demands for compensation from people whose livelihoods, at least for the time being, have been ruined by the disaster. The government has patched together a compensation scheme, but experts believe this may have been a sop to let the company’s book-keepers approve the end-of-year accounts. As fears of bankruptcy mount, TEPCO’s shares hit a new low on June 6th.
Tatsuo Hatta, an economist at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, believes TEPCO may have to sell off its power plants to international operators to remain solvent. That could set in motion what he and a few outspoken commentators consider a long overdue overhaul of the energy market in Japan, which could have an immense impact on national politics. He says that executives at TEPCO and the other oligopolistic electricity utilities have stifled argument about Japan’s nuclear-energy programme, both by pouring money into politics and by muffling the media through their huge advertising budgets…
The huge swathes of land destroyed by the tsunami or depopulated because of radiation could become wind, wave or solar farms.
Excerpt, Japan’s recovery: Who needs leaders?, Economist, June 11, at 27
Everyone was horrified by the earthquake and tsunami that killed 24,000 Japanese and caused three nuclear meltdowns. But in Germany the feeling was laced with terror. Suspicion of nuclear power became mass revulsion. At a recent race in Berlin sponsored by Vattenfall, which generates nuclear power, many runners carried no-nuke flags.
The response of Chancellor Angela Merkel has been called the swiftest change of political course since unification. Only last year her government overturned a decade-old decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. After Japan she suspended that policy and yanked seven of Germany’s 17 reactors off the electricity grid. On May 30th she completed her U-turn. The plan to keep nuclear plants operating for 12 more years was scrapped; the seven reactors will be shut for good. Germany will be “the first big industrial country to shift to highly efficient and renewable energy, with all the opportunities that offers,” Mrs Merkel promised. Industry is less thrilled about losing nuclear, which provides 23% of Germany’s electricity reliably and cheaply. It “fills me with worry,” said Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federation of German Industries.
The “energy transformation” is neither as revolutionary as Mrs Merkel suggests nor as hazardous as industry fears. Germany is returning to its policy of seven months ago. It has surplus generating capacity and low prices that are unlikely to rise much in the next few years, notes Mark Lewis of Deutsche Bank. Mrs Merkel’s shift was already under way. In 2000 30% of electricity came from nuclear. Since then, renewables like solar and wind have expanded their share from 6.6% to 16.5%.
The new plan is meant to make it easier to raise this share. But Mrs Merkel is also using Germans’ nuclear fears to smash their aversion to new infrastructure. The Bundestag is due to approve eight laws by the end of June to facilitate this. Yet the task depends also on citizens’ participation. “What is your contribution?” Mrs Merkel asks people…The nuclear reversal burnishes her credentials as a moderniser. Whether it will help Europe’s strongest economy is less clear. The rise in fickle solar and wind power increases the risk of instability in electricity supplies; with the closure of seven reactors, “we are really going to the limits,” says Christian Schneller of TenneT, a Dutch-German transmission company. Congestion on lines carrying power from north to south raises the risk of blackouts.
Germany promises neither to increase imports from nuclear neighbours nor to emit more greenhouse gases than planned. That will be hard. “You can’t have a liberalised energy market and close the border,” says Manuel Frondel of RWI, a research institute. Germany will emit an extra 370m tonnes of CO2 as it replaces nuclear with gas- and coal-fired plants. Europe’s emissions are capped by an emission-trading scheme, but the costs will now rise for everybody. Germany’s own goal is more ambitious: a 40% reduction from 1990 by 2020. This will not be met, says Mr Frondel.
Mr Schneller says the pace of progress on infrastructure must dictate the energy mix, not the other way around. Of the 3,500km (2,175 miles) of transmission lines that are needed to carry renewable power from (largely northern) sources to southern and western consumers, just 90km have been built. “Monster masts” provoke almost as much opposition as nuclear reactors. To shift fully to renewables, Germany needs to boost storage capacity by a factor of 500.
The government plans to speed up planning and licensing, as it did after unification. Progress is to be monitored, perhaps by a new parliamentary watchdog. The government may set up a “national energy transformation forum” to enlist citizens. If greenhouse-gas emissions rise faster than planned, says Mrs Merkel, conservation will have to improve.
Germany cannot do all this on its own, argues Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Big efficiency gains will come only if Europe’s carbon cap includes housing and transport. Ramping up renewables would make more sense if Germany tapped into sunnier and windier parts of Europe, which requires a pan-European electricity grid. “Scaling up can only be done on a European level,” says Mr Edenhofer.
Excerpts, German energy: Nuclear? Nein, danke, Economist, June 4, 2011,at 62