When a confluence of events line up to expose an irrefutable but wickedly ugly truth, the phenomenon comes to be known as a perfect storm. Japan's devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami, nuclear emergency and humanitarian crisis would better be described as a series of ever-worsening perfect storms.
Though few people yet realize it, these events are a clear but frightening glimpse into the future of our world as carbon fuels upon which we have relied for the past two centuries dwindle. These incidents have already exposed the world's energy vulnerability.
The sooner people and policy makers realize it, the faster and more effective we can be at implementing clear-headed, sensible plans for our energy future. No country is anywhere close to being prepared.
The hydrogen explosions and venting of radioactive materials at the Daiichi nuclear power plants at Fukushima, only 150 miles north of Tokyo, already represent the second worst nuclear accident in history, and the situation is becoming increasingly precarious. It remains uncertain that on-site stockpiles of used -- but still highly radioactive -- fuel rods can be stabilized, and further meltdown and venting of radioactive materials seems likely. The full scale of the tragedy at Fukushima has not yet played out, and may not be fully known for months. A massive response will be required to prevent the critical situation at this power plant from becoming much worse, and we can only hope that this response can be mustered to reduce the human suffering that will result.
But the shockwaves of the Daiichi emergency will be felt far beyond Fukushima. They will be experienced throughout the world. Wasn't nuclear power supposed to rescue us from our looming global energy crisis? It had gathered support from a wide swath of society. Energy-hungry industrialists were once again promoting nuclear energy as the only real substitute for a world with declining supplies of oil and natural gas. Many environmentalists, once its fiercest opponents, were lauding the low carbon emissions of nuclear power. Capitalists were beginning to pony up the dough seeing nuclear power, once again, as a sound investment. But what now?
Japan has become an instant test case in energy vulnerability. Japan is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II and has been responding in magnificent fashion, but it faces many tough questions in the years ahead. As the world's third-largest economy, Japan has an enormous energy appetite. The island nation has virtually no fossil fuel reserves, and now its nuclear industry is in peril.
The lack of fossil fuel resources led Japan to develop a strong portfolio in alternative energy. Its nuclear industry, until last Friday, generated roughly a quarter of its electricity from 54 nuclear reactors. Although considered a world leader in solar and wind energy, Japan generates only a fraction of one percent of its electricity from renewable resources. What will Japan do to secure energy in the coming decades? It had planned to double its nuclear capacity by 2050, but that goal now seems untenable. Can it replace its nuclear capacity with renewables? That is not feasible. The only other option is to increase its imports of coal, oil and natural gas. But at what cost? With supplies of oil and natural gas peaking, and about to go into decline, this will become increasingly expensive and difficult, while presenting environmental hazards.
The explosions at the Daiichi nuclear power plant warn about a new era of energy vulnerability which threatens Japan's economic recovery. But none of us should look on complacently. We are all in the same boat. The damage faced by the nuclear power industry worldwide should remind us all that we face a looming global energy crisis. With pitiful investments in renewable energy, and the likelihood of renewed vigorous resistance to the development of nuclear power what do we face in life without oil?
Steve Hallett is the author, with John Wright, of Life without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future (March, Prometheus Books.)