Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, May 7, 2012

Good night, Godzilla! Japan turns off nuclear energy

On May 5th, Japan has turned off its last operating nuclear plant. The nuclear monster, Godzilla, is sleeping. Is it just a nap or perhaps a long lasting hibernation? Only time will tell. 

The Japanese have always maintained an ambiguous attitude towards nuclear energy; not surprisingly after having seen some of their cities nuked during the second world war. So, at the same time as Japan was embarking in an ambitious nuclear program, in the 1950s, Godzilla appeared on the Japanese movie screens. A scaly monster somehow created by nuclear radiations, it had as main hobby that of destroying Tokyo by stomping on buildings and shooting beams of fire around.

In the Western imaginary, the ambivalent feeling about nuclear energy took the shape of the nuclear genie shown the 1957 Walt Disney movie "Our friend, the atom." In this more optimistic interpretation, the evil genie could be tricked into becoming a faithful servant. But that would not be the case for the Japanese nuclear monster. In time, Godzilla's personality and characteristics evolved and, occasionally, the ugly monster would be shown as helping humans in fighting other - even uglier - monsters. But Godzilla would always remain a tricky creature - beyond human control.

So, after the Fukushima disaster, Godzilla has been put to sleep: the last active nuclear plant in Japan was turned off on May 5th 2012. Will Godzilla sleep forever? It is impossible to say. What we can say is that if getting rid of nuclear plants means going back to fossil fuels, then the Japanese have simply replaced Godzilla with an even bigger, uglier, and infinitely more dangerous monster. While Godzilla could only destroy Tokyo, the climate change monster can destroy our whole civilization.

But that's not necessarily what the future has in store. It is possible to use renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy at the same time. Of course, it is a tremendously difficult challenge but Japan, with its large scientific and technological capabilities, is uniquely suited to meet it. With a lot of work and a bit of luck, the future of the world may not involve any more monsters.


See also "Godzilla vs. Global Warming" a short animation based on the idea that global warming is much worse than anything Godzilla could ever do.


  1. Going back to fossil fuels may not be the ideal solution, but nuclear energy is infinitely more dangerous than fossil fuels, in my opinion. There is measurable quantities of radioactive fallout all across the US from Fukushima, I would hate to see the effect here in the US if one of our own reactors were to suffer damage from a natural disaster on the same scale.

    The key to the survival of the human race lies in reduction of energy consumption and use of non-lethal generation methods, not coming up with dangerous ways to generate a lot of electricity with non-renewable resources.

    1. "nuclear energy is infinitely more dangerous than fossil fuels, in my opinion."

      China's death toll from coal:  ~150,000/yr, every year, plus climate impacts lasting at least 1000 years.
      Japan's toll from Fukushima meltdowns:  3 injured from beta burns total, with zero climate impact.

      The half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is at least 500 years; the half-lives of Cs-137 and Sr-90 are a mere 30 years.  If you think nuclear power is more dangerous than fossil fuels, or particularly dangerous at all (especially compared to a return to biofuels), you need to re-examine your thinking processes.

  2. I live in a place with a nuclear facility thirty miles on either side, in the vesica pisces of potential fallout as it were, here in Minneapolis, both facilities considerably closer to the starting point of the mighty Mississippi, than the end. If we shut both facilities down, I would feel considerably better about our chances of navigating the coming decades, but I don't think that will occur to my fellow Minnesotan's until we can't afford to do anything about it.

    I'm a little surprised to hear you say, as you seem very astute, that "It is possible to use renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy at the same time." I'm no scientist, but as I understand it, there is no replacing fossil fuels and nuclear with renewables, but at a radical loss in available energy supply.

    I'm convinced humanity will be living a comfortable, clean energy lifestyle someday, but I don't see that happening before we have to pass through the loss of just about everything we have come to take for granted.


    1. Wow, thanks for saying I am "very astute", which I think is the thing I am not!

      But the trick lies in the term "replacing". It doesn't mean "replacing 100%" it means "replacing what we really need"


  3. Ugo,

    Japan on renewable energy (only)? Are you being optimistic or desperate? ;-)

    Anyway I look forward to meet you in Vienna!


    1. Naah.... Alexander, come on! The Japanese are the world leaders in sustainability. 300 years of stable population during the Edo period. If someone can pull the solar cell out of the hat, they are the right ones.

      Seriously, I think the American attitude is wrong. We don't need so much innovation as adaptation. The Japanese are masters ad adapting themselves, the Americans try to adapt the world TO themselves. No good, it won't work

    2. I any case, according to J Hansen "It is game over for climate", if we do NOT stop tar sand developement...


  4. Ugo, sorry to disagree with respect to the nuclear Mozilla and to the fossil fuels Mozillas even worst. Both of them are equally Mozillas and really monsters, but the fossil fuel Mozilla can be noticed when approaching. The nuclear Mozilla is a terrible, invisible ghost.

    And with respect to the optimism of the so called "renewables" (in fact, non reneable systems able to capture a portion of renewable energy flows), After having pushed for several years these "solutions", I am now not convinced that they may help. Some data follows:

    * Wind energy up to 31.12.2011: 238.3 GW
    * Wind energy installed in 2011: about 40 GW
    * This is about 1.8% of the total world electricty consumption. But the electricity demand/consum,ption JUST between 2009 and 2010 was 3 times bigger than all the worldwide electricity generated by wind
    * The electrical consumption increased in 2011 with respect to 2010 about 15 times more than what the 40 GW generated.
    * Europe and North America have 67 percent of the world installed base. China and India about 28 percent. Both groups have installed capacity for obvious reasons DIFFERENT than a fall in love with eccology. They were business oriented projects, granted with premium tariffs for 25 years in average (basically, the strategy of Europe and the US with tax exemptions and other fiscal incentives). They had some other incentives, like fiscal benefits for manufacturers and advantages to R+D+i to allow their respective countries a competitive edge in selling equipment goods to third parties/countries. Always in BAU form. Being the incentives, obviously paid by a society that moves and generates surpluses with FOSSIL FUELS. The other big gropu (China+India) had a different strategy. They were promoting internal installed power and huge incentives to local manufacturers in a well known strategy to cope world markets and putting on their knees to Western manufacturers to monòpolize supplies in the medium and long term. Again, the common issue is that they were both generously financed by the surplus generated by societies heavily underpinned in fossil fuels (in this case much more coal and contaminated). conclusion for wind: if no incentives or surpluses granted from the fossil fueled society, no wind parks.

    As for solar 2011 ended with 67.3 GW of installed power. You can estimate from the above figures the contribution that solar PV represents for the world electricity consumption as a whole. Again 75% of the installed base is in Europe and 15% in Japan. Again, if there are premium tariffs supported by the surplus generated by a fossil fueled society, there are installed power. In other words, no fossil fuels surpluses = no solar PV panels. By the way, congratulations for the 9,000 Mw installed last year, just in Italy, to become 2nd installed base worldwide, with a total 12,5 GW installed. About one third of all the world installations in 2011 just in Italy. I wish you can digest better this 2011 experience and the burden of the premium tariffs (at the same level than the one in Spain, more or less), than our Spanish government that was world champion in 2008 with half of the world installed power and today has a very heavy indigestion and has had to frozen absolutely the installations for lack of SURPLUS to pay premium tariffs from the decaying/depleting FOSSIL FUELLED society on which solar PV panels were obviously heavily underpinned. And we stopped at the 4.4 GW level. God bless you in Italy...

  5. And with respect to your hopes for renewables in Japan, I would like to comment the following:

    I am pleased that they took the decision. Fukushima is today, in my opinion, the biggest problem of human kind, specially if the 11,000 fuel rods (wasted and new) plummet on the corio or magma of Fukushima. If this happens, they will not be able to live in all Japan and you and me and probably some billion more may also suffer the consequences, not to talk if they have to abandon the another 50 nuclear reactors, today stopped, but with the fuel rods somewhere in actively refrigerated pools, that may stop refrigerating in any moment.

    now for small calculations, do the math:

    Take the 85 TWh generated by the nucelar installed base and make the case for solar PV panels. A sunny place like Southern Spain or Italy generates about 1,500 MWh/MWp installed in fixed plants. Each fixed plant occupies about 3 Ha. (2 Ha if maintenance is stretched or penalized). so, they will need AT LEAST 56,000 MWp installed base of solar PV modules to generate the same energy than the 54 nuclear power reactors already dismantled. This will serve just a 30 percent of the present Japanese electricity consumption (2010) and will occupy about 150,000 Ha or 1,500 Km2 of sunny, accesible, well placed well oriented and permitted areas in an archipealgo that has 377,000 Km2, with about 128 million inhabitants (337 persons/km2) and the subsequent masssive energy storage systems. They will probably need an evacuation plan bigger than with Fukushima (337 inh./km2 times 1,500 Km2 = half a million inhabitants). Difficult for Japan, isn't it?

    We should rather start thinking seriously in degrowth, powerdown, decroissance, decrecimiento, but a serious one, rather than a cosmetic one. And if this complex society goes down to, let's say one fourth to the present energy consumption (primary, which is much more than electricity), then we cannot count with complex technmological systems and structures. We have to rethink and to hardwire our minds in a much different form than today with the technological scape goat. If technology brought us here, it is not a step forward in technology that is going to take us out from here. You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew. Einstein dixit

  6. Pedro, I think things are not so bad as you seem to be saying. Think about the area you mention, 1500 km2. If Japan is as urbanized as today's Belgium or Holland (about 10% of the area), that means it has some 40,000 km2 of permanent buildings. 1500 km2 is less than 4% of the already paved area. So, it could be done using largely already existing surfaces; without the need of displacing agriculture or people. With PV, one always has to look at the sunny side!

    And that doesn't take into account the fact that Japan has a lot of rain (good for hydroelectric power) and hot springs (good for geothermal energy). I don't know about Japan's wind potential, but I am sure there is some.

  7. I wonder to what extent the whole natural gas revolution will play a role in Japan's power going forward. Of course, whilst its referred to as "clean burning" in adverts, gas is still a fossil fuel. Nuclear is still preferable to me.

  8. Ugo,

    I agree but only if Japan drastically (realy) reduces total energy use, and still I am not sure about the aircraft industry.. :)


  9. Interestingly, "Game over for the climate" can be found also on economic blogs, this is from professor Mark Thoma, tagged also under "market failure"...