On March 11, Japan experienced its worst earthquake in the 140 years of recorded history of earthquake measurements and may have started to suffer from its worst—to date—nuclear incident. As I write in an analytic and opinion article for foreignpolicy.com, it appeared as of March 11 that the worst-case accident involving a reactor meltdown and substantial release of radioactive materials to the environment would likely be averted. But as the news has unfolded on March 12, the situation has worsened with reported high radiation levels and an explosion at the nuclear plant’s site.
In the foreignpolicy.com article, I recommend that Japan needs to reevaluate its increasing dependence on nuclear power for electricity. Most recently, Japan generates about 30 percent of its electricity from 54 commercial reactors. Tokyo plans to ramp up significantly its use of nuclear power to about 41 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2050. But this risks becoming too reliant on this source for electricity generation. In an earthquake-prone region, one massive quake can knock out numerous reactors for many months, resulting in significant economic harm and adverse effects on people’s livelihoods. In the article, I argue for effective policies to stimulate greater growth in renewable sources such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal, which are all abundant in Japan.
The implications for other countries in earthquake risky regions are clear. In particular, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam that have expressed renewed interest in acquiring their first nuclear power plants need to weigh this investment versus investment in renewable energies. I am not arguing that nuclear power should not be used. But it must meet rigorous standards of safety: both in human operations and ability to withstand natural disasters. Japan could serve as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region and for other regions that are earthquake prone such as California by shifting its electricity generation more rapidly toward renewable energies.
Also on March 11, Marco Werman of PRI’s The World interviewed me about nuclear power, accidents, and renewable energy policy in Japan. Listen to the five-minute interview.