Fukushima's Collateral Effects

They will include summer electricity shortages, restructuring of regulation, and possibly even political reform

2 min read
Fukushima's Collateral Effects

smoke from No.4 reactor at Fukushima

Photo: TEPCO/Reuters

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

What a difference six months make. Last fall, at a smart grid technical meeting organized by IEEE's Communications Society, a Japanese speaker said that his country had no particular interest in making its electric power system more reliable, as it already was very close to 100 percent reliable.

Now we are hearing that because of the Fukushima catastrophe and the temporary shut-down of other nuclear power plants, there are almost sure to be summer shortages that will require the government to impose electricity rationing. The Financial Times reports that Tepco's peak load during last year's (unusually hot) summer was 60 gigawatts; the amount of generating capacity expected to be available this coming summer will be 52 GW. As reported here, Japan's bifurcated national grid will complicate the job of getting electricity to where it's needed.

In a shattering investigative article that led The New York Times on Wednesday this week, reporters Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson describe a "culture of complicity" that drastically weakened nuclear regulation in Japan. A revolving door between industry and government involving "ascent to heaven" and "descent from heaven" meant that regulators relied on industry people to do their technical work, so that in effect the foxes were guarding the henhouse.

That system will obviously have to be drastically reformed if Japan's nuclear industry is to recover public confidence and the country as a whole is to restore its technical reputation. The effects could go even beyond that. The Chernobyl catastrophe was a not insignificant factor in the Soviet Union's loss of legitimacy and the collapse of Russian communism. We won't be seeing a political revolution in Japan, of course, but we may see something close to it: a calling into question of the cozy government-big business system that has dominated the country since World War II.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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