China Syndrome Hits Japan

Posted by Jeff Rubin on March 16th, 2011 under SmallerWorldTags: , , ,  • 22 Comments

The meltdown of three reactor cores at Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima nuclear power station in the tsunami and earthquake devastated area of northeastern Japan is already reverberating around the world’s nuclear power industry.

Just as many countries were looking for nuclear power to play a growing role in meeting their future energy needs, the world is suddenly looking at the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

It’s not a coincidence the countries rely heavily on nuclear power. They are generally the one’s that lack their own hydrocarbon resources, which in the absence of nuclear power, forces strategic dependence on foreign oil gas or coal supplies.

Japan, the world’s third largest oil-consuming economy, fits that bill perfectly. It imports virtually all of the more than four million barrels of oil it consumes every day.

Given its total dependence on imported oil, Japan relies on nuclear for about a third of its power generation with 54 nuclear power generating stations scattered throughout the country.

If the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 near Harrisburg, Penn. is any guide, the real impact of what’s happening at the Fukushima power plant will be felt for decades. Overnight, the Three Mile Island accident undermined public confidence in the safety of nuclear power. There hasn’t been a new greenfield nuclear power station built in the U.S. for decades. And the nuclear disaster in Japan is now sure to put the kibosh on hopes of any nuclear renaissance in America.

In the U.S.’s case, natural gas and coal has filled the gap for power generation since the Three Mile Island accident. You can bet that U.S. proponents of shale gas will be quick to compare the much-maligned environmental impact of their resource with the environmental impact of a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant.

Japan, however, doesn’t have domestic hydrocarbon resources on hand.  Neither do a lot of other countries.

Nowhere is the fallout from the Fukushima accident going to be bigger than in China and India. China’s latest Five Year Plan calls for a tripling of the country’s 13 currently operating nuclear power plants. At the same time, India has plans to buy 21 nuclear reactors.

Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of the state-run monopoly Nuclear Power Corp. of India, already conceded that Japan’s nuclear accident, only a month shy of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, could put a big damper on his country’s nuclear expansion plans.

And China, like Japan, has been the site of many of the world’s most devastating quakes. A 7.5 magnitude quake in Tangshan killed 250,000 in 1976 and at least 87,000 more perished in a recent quake in Sichuan in 2008.

As Japan’s nuclear disaster starts to rein in other countries’ nuclear power plans, our dependence on hydrocarbons just got that much greater.

  • Anonymous

    So far Japan’s consumption decrease and its role as a major importer have supposedly stalled the rise of oil prices, but I wonder if in the medium term a lot of gas, coal and oil will brought in to replace part of the nuclear and what was lost on refineries, quickly compensanting this current demand cut as industrial production resumes.

    But since electricity is on average only 20-25% of an OECD country’s final energy consumption I imagine the price rise will be back as soon as the japanese start driving and buying again and even faster if Bahrein becomes the rope in a Saudi-Iranian game of tug-of-war.

  • Artreides

    I would not be surprised to learn that the damage caused by the hydrocarbon fuel cycle (including extraction, processing and burning) to date significantly outweighs the damage to human health caused by accidents at nuclear plants. Nuclear is like air travel, hydrocarbon is like travelling by car. Compare total mortality. That won’t matter, though.

  • Unc

    Jeff, general electric is sending ten natural gas generation units to Japan as we speak, I am assuming to make up,in the most feasible,timely manner possible for lost generation capacity in Japan,In my mind this will accelerate a price rise in Hydrocarbons, that is the fastest way to restore Japans electricity grid towards near capacity until they have a chance to catch their breath.In fairness to the nuclear industry,a #-9 on the richter scale earthquake was never designed into those nuke units with the first unit built around 1973,in fact the engineered tsuami threshold was based on a wave of about 60% of what actually hit and took out the emergency,backup power for the circulation cooling pumps, for redundancy.This will impact the nuke industry,big time,Ironically,one of the safest nuke designs in the world is the Candu reactor,but has always been shunned upon for a whole host of reasons.At any rate, the price of hydrocarbons will be headed up,as you have predicted, albeit at an accelerated pace.The Japanese people are tough and they will overcome this huge natural disaster.I hope the world chips in to help these brave people overcome the situation at hand.Unc.f.S.J. Canada

  • Foxbar03

    DOoes anybody have a handle of how bad it could get if there is a Meltdown?

  • Unc


  • JB

    It could get VERY bad…

    Without the presence of human technicians around (they all had to be evacuated because of the high radiation level) the 6 dammaged reactors and their spent nuclear fuel storage ponds could all crack and leak massive quantities of radioactive by-products.

    These nuclear by-products (some is very deadly Plutonium because a number of dammaged Japanese reactors are powered by MOX) will be spread out all over Japan and the surrounding areas by low altitude winds which have a great degree of variability… If the radioactive by-products reach the high altitude trade winds (blowing from west to east) then they will circle the globe and fall-out gradually all mostly over the Northern Hemisphere… This is well know since the end of WWII and from a long period of experimentation during which several atomic and hydrogen bombs were exploded in the atmosphere. How much radiation are we talking about remains to be exactly extimated. However remember that we are dealing here with 6 reactors plus their used fuel storage ponds and with an evolving situation…

    If the leaks cannot be stopped, the radiation release could last for years and contaminate everything to a degree that has yet to be properly assessed. The danger of radiation contamination could create panic within populations, once they understand what is really happening. Everybody who can will be running for the exits (already some investment bankers have purchased plane tickets for themselves and their families out of Japan). But how can you relocate 120 million Japaneses?

    Japanese production of ANYTHING is likely to be stigmatized by the radioactive fallout. China has already started to check the radiation levels from a number of products that it imports from Japan… If things get bad, nobody will want to import anything made in Japan…

    Once the Japanese financial markets understand that Japan’s economy is going down, all bets are off…

    The authorities need to find a way to seal all those 6 reactors and their spent fuel storage ponds. But how can you do that if no human being, even with a suit, can work around the reactors? Even helicopters cannot now approach to dump water on the reactors or their spent fuel ponds…

    A critical error of judgment was made by building 6 reactors near one another because any radiation leak from one reactor will prevent people from prodiving proper surveillance and maintenance for the others. Another error of judgment from the nuclear industry and from the authorities was to build nuclear power plants close to the sea in a country well known for its violent earthquakes and tsunamis… In the current case, the back-up diesel generators were submerged by salt water and rendered unoperational. They simply could not take over the task of powering the cooling pumps when the main power lines were blown away by the tsunami. All that was left were battery packs that lasted 8 hours… and they could not provide an adequate supply of those battery packs to the devastated site. As a result the cooling pumps stopped, the nuclear cores overheated, cracked the cooling water into hydrogen and oxygen and kaboom!

    A complete reassessment of risks needs to be made by the nuclear industry and by the government authorities. If proper risk assessments had been made in the first place, no fission reactor would likely ever have been built. But, there was big money involved and a substitute for oil needed to be found…

    Today, the world may very well be facing a paradigm change because of this nuclear disaster.

  • Dante

    The units shut down flawlessly as designed. The unanticipated situation was the conventional power generators being knocked out by the tsunami, thus causing the cooling problem.

  • Dante

    Something always gets you in the end.

  • Dante

    Gotta love that CO2!

  • trusted advisor

    Jeff, given this tsunami effect on Japan’s consumption for a while, do you still stick to oil @$225 by 2012?

  • Anonymous

    crisis solution – import more gas, expected.

    long term solution – thin film solar on every rooftop in japan, very earthquake proof. The domestic residence powers the things that are needed for operations during the day, use fossil fuel at night. I cannot see how in a time of rising commodity prices, a stressed japan doesnt stress everyone else.

    Thin film solar is out there, and if this disaster doesnt get it deployed, i dont know what will. Check out nanosolar on youtube. We need this technology everywhere.

    Our civilisation is a temporary island of low entropy that is trying to conquer/ignore a stronger force rather than harmonise with it. This way of thinking is simply unsustainable.

  • Anonymous

    I believe the hemp plant has been used to remove radiation from chernobyl

    Remove co2 and the radiation, then burn the hemp in a gasification plant!

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the world can help japan (and itself) by being more efficient to free up oil/gas supply for Japan. They are going to need so much more to compensate for the nukes.

    Maybe a work from home day across the industrialised world (where possible) to reduce demand so the price doesnt go ballistic.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the world can help japan (and itself) by being more efficient to free up oil/gas supply for Japan. They are going to need so much more to compensate for the nukes.

    Maybe a work from home day across the industrialised world (where possible) to reduce demand so the price doesnt go ballistic.

  • Dante

    Tops will be $120. $225 would be hell on earth. Too much oil around.

  • Craig 1962

    Solid oxide fuel cells could make natural gas go a whole lot further and can provide heat and power. Fuel cells make sense for Japan if they wean themselves off nuclear. As you say they have no fossil fuel resources in the country so they have to use what they import as sparingly as possible. Distributed units also make sense in light the susceptibility of Japan to earthquakes.

  • unc

    Mr Snake, as a lot of emerging technologies get promoted, remember this, as history has shown,for every move on one hand ,there is a reaction with the other .At least with hydro carbons, we now know the negative side with some degree of confidence,however one has to imagine the future consequences of this so called NEW WAVE Technology.One has to wonder and question without study the impacts of extracting energy from the wind,what are the impacts on localized eco-systems, on decreased natural wind flows in a given area, also has anyone studied the impact of milking solar energy from a given area and what impacts that may or may not have on local ecosystems,my bet would be, is that we are not fully up to snuff on that bag of hammers.Old sayin goes: better the devil you know than the devil you do not.Unc

  • tanking

    It seems Jeff’s prediction that manufacturing could start to move back towards Western markets because of rising oil costs is starting to materialize.

    Check out this article in today’s Financial Times and a new report by Accenture.

  • Dante

    Heaven forbid we have to get our hands dirty again!

  • Peter

    Another factor to consider is the cost of natural gas. Natural gas is currently a real energy bargain and it can be used to replace nuclear. I expect prices to increase from current levels however if this resource is as big as promoters say prices will be competitive with nuclear power.

    PS: Cheap gas won’t fix our oil problem because it is much energy density then diesel or gasoline.

    Peter’s pet peeve: People who call gasoline gas. It is not a gas it is a liquid. This annoys me almost as much as people who call their computers a hard drive.

  • Ian Brett Cooper

    The difference is, a nuclear accident’s effects don’t show up for years and can be attributable to other causes. So the costs in lives cut short by nuclear power have probably been grossly understated. Also, there’s the fact that a single nuclear accident has the potential to make thousands of square miles of real estate uninhabitable for centuries. No other power source has the potential to make the Earth’s surface uninhabitable

  • Abitibidoug

    I agree with Peter’s pet peeve, as it can lead to confusion. It can be solved easily by using the term petrol instead of gas or gasoline.