The death of the “realists”
Today the last of the 54 reactors in Japan shut down. This is more for cultural reasons than technical reasons. Most of these reactors are fully able to operate, at least two of them have passed the government stress tests and have all the needed government approvals. Japan has long used and informal “consensus” process in which local mayors and governments have a voice in the decision making process. Before the Fukushima triple meltdown, local governments generally saw nuclear utilities are the sources of jobs and tax revenues. There was some anti-nuclear protest activity in Japan, but the “realists” won the day. Japan has very little indigenous fossil fuel production and it has a high energy per capita appetite ranked 28th of 190 countries. Japan is one of the largest renewable energy producers in the world, ranked at 9 over all.
After Fukushima everything changed. When reactors went down for their periodic refueling, local government, despite intense pressure from the federal government, were unwilling to give the green light needed for restart. And despite the fact that legally these reactors could restart, culture proved stronger than economics. The Japanese press is filled with claims that closing these reactors will result in black outs and economic depression for the country. The people did not care, they did not want these reactors to restart and surprisingly to people watching from outside the country, these “realist” arguments did not sway local governments as they once did.
Along with France, Japan dominates nuclear construction worldwide. Toshiba has purchased Westinghouse’s nuclear division, Hitachi purchased a controlling interest in General Electric’s nuclear division. The US has no indigenous nuclear construction capacity anymore. Imagine for a minute you are a nuclear engineer working in a country where the prospects of new nuclear construction are nearly zero (since it is much cheaper and easier to restart a closed reactor then it is to build a new one). Would you stick around and hope to collect a pension one day, or would you think about a new career? The best and the brightest will quite likely leave. This leaves those incapable of change running some of the most dangerous technology in the world.