Energy Shifts
11.04.2011, 2:31 pm
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Tokyo on March 14, 2011 during the nation’s first ever rolling blackouts, image

Millions of people in Japan are continuing to adapt to a new reality in which, suddenly, electricity is no longer in ample supply. Before March 2011, electricity had been readily available consistently and continuously, invisibly powering high speed trains, keeping modern conveniences running and urban lights blazing 24 hours a day. Eight months ago, it wasn’t yet common global or even national knowledge that Japan produced 30% of its electricity through nuclear power.

Last summer, the majority of Japan’s nuclear power plants went offline.  All Tokyo residents were required to reduce their energy consumption by 16%, virtually overnight. Such a large and abrupt reduction doesn’t come easily. Everyday activities that presume consistent and abundant supplies of electricity are no longer possible.

The recent news that 80% of Japan’s nuclear reactors are now offline, and the increasing probability that by early 2012, 100% of its reactors will be offline for maintenance, has lead Japanese people to search for fundamentally new and different relationships to their nation’s energy generation and consumption. A recent poll by NHK cites 70% of Japanese people want an end to nuclear power in their country.

Consequences and lessons learned from the events in Japan are rippling around the globe.  Many nations are considering more closely how much of their energy comes from nuclear power, and whether to pursue this energy source in the future. France tops the list of nuclear powered nations, with 75% of their electricity coming from reactors. Germany, generating 23% of their electricity from nuclear power, made a remarkable turn and decided to close all nuclear plants by 2022. The United States derives about 20% of its electricity from 104 commercial nuclear reactors. New York City (serviced by the Indian Point reactors) sources 32% of its energy from nuclear power. And the New School, site of FOP’s current The Thingness of Energy project, receives 20.48% of its power from Indian Point as a part of New York City’s electricity generation mix.

Workers move a cask filled with spent fuel from the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant, image Michael Nagle for The New York Times

As part of our research for the Thingness of Energy project, we’ve been following news related to the potential closure of our local nuclear power plant, Indian Point. Messages have been mixed. Governor Cuomo adamantly supports the immediate closure of the plant at the end of the reactors’ licensing periods, 2013 and 2015. At the same time, Mayor Bloomberg has stated the City would face energy shortages if the plants aren’t re-licensed for 20 additional years.

We wonder what would happen if the plant’s three massive generators of electricity were to close. Would the City shutdown? The economy crash? Would the City face rolling blackouts? If so, would New Yorkers, like their counterparts in Tokyo, evolve, adapt, and invent ingenious ways to use less energy— or perhaps begin to use energy more wisely and intentionally?

Takejiro Sueyoshi, an environmental expert and special adviser to the United Nations Environment Program has said, “Without anyone knowing, Japanese came to think that supply of energy will be there if you plug into the outlet … the whole energy setup in Japan was a way of life of the industrial, high-economic growth period … March 11 has posed us a question. Should we maintain the way of the 20th century?”

Here in the United States, for the moment, we have the luxury of making choices outside of crisis mode.  This might be a good time to pursue energy futures that will be sustainable both within and beyond the 21st century. One of the biggest, ongoing problems with nuclear power is that its waste burdens us, and all humans to come, for many millennia. Indian Point, for example, is “temporarily” storing 1500 tons of radioactive waste on site, and it has no where to go.

The events of March 11th in Japan led some countries to hit the nuclear pause button, and experience those events as an opportunity to realistically and creatively consider the scales and effects of current energy consumption and their long-term material consequences. A new report requested by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and Riverkeeper, Inc. states that New York City could endure the closure of Indian Point without facing blackouts or energy cuts. The full report, Indian Point Energy Center Nuclear Plant Retirement Analysis, can be read here.

2 Comments so far
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How much energy powers the glitz and glamour @ times square? What other sources of non-essential power could be unplugged from the 24-7 NYC advertising model? How many wall street offices keep lights on into the deep night at the expense of our future? And how many apartment or school buildings run heat in the winter with windows open? We can do without Indian point and there are myriad opportunities to start demonstrating how…the question remains, as you astutely point out, must crisis come first?

Comment by John

As Japan mulls a short-sighted decision to abandon nuclear power, China embraces it ever more fiercely. China will be researching and developing molten salt reactors based on Thorium, an abundant nuclear fertile element, up to 4 times more abundant than uranium.

Energy from molten salt thorium-based reactors uses all its nuclear fuel compared to 0.5 to 0.7 percent used in today’s uranium based pressurized reactors. They operate at atmospheric pressure and in concept are walk-away safe. The waste they produce only has to be isolated for several centuries versus 10 or more for conventional approaches. And the volume of waste to handle is much, much smaller.

The west instead of innovating past the shortcomings of today’s approaches to nuclear power are fleeing in fear from what they don’t seem to want to understand..

It’s a shame.

Comment by zhando

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