After a week’s worth of uncertainty over whether or not we would a) have a massive aftershock, b) be inhaling clouds of radioactive dust, or c) endure a and b at the same time, things in Tokyo are getting back to normal. We’re not out of the woods as far as Fukushima Daiichi is concerned, but the likelihood of radiation causing harm to the capital’s residents was minimal to begin with (as this transcript between the British Embassy in Tokyo and the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor makes clear), and further decreases as the days go by. Obviously it is a massive problem for those who live near the power plant, and will probably cause health scares for months to come as scientists discover traces of radioactive materials in food and soil, but I’m confident that Japan will get through it. The real issue at hand is the colossal scale of destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in north eastern prefectures. Entire towns have been wiped out, thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been made homeless.
As for whether events at Fukushima Daiichi will cause Japan to switch away from nuclear power, in the short term yes, they will. Fossil-fuel will have to make up for the current electricity shortfall until damaged nuclear plants can be fully checked and repaired. In the medium term, though, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a dramatic shift away from nuclear power. The industry is very well established in Japan and, unless there is a truly monumental change in energy policy, the government will continue to support it. Efforts will be made to make existing nuclear plants safer, but at present the only viable alternatives – coal, gas and oil – carry health risks of their own, and are hardly the best way forward for a country looking to reduce its greenhouse emissions and dependence on imported fuel. It would be fantastic if the government embraced renewable energy sources, but current investment in them is pretty dire: hydroelectric and other renewable sources produce about 3-4% of Japan’s electricity – a smaller share than in 1980. Nuclear power, on the other hand, produces about 30%. (In stark contrast to Japan, Germany produces more than 16% of its electricity from renewable sources, and intends to increase this amount to 80% by 2050. It’s also on course to shut down all commercial nuclear power plants by 2020.)
Anyway, back to the situation in Tokyo. Rolling blackouts will continue for the near future, though the inner-city commercial districts have not been disastrously affected by them. This weekend most shops in Marunouchi were open, but they shut early (6pm). They’ll probably continue to operate shorter hours until power supplies stabilise and suburban commuter trains are able to reliably bring staff to work. Incidentally, there would be little need for blackouts if more offices turned off unnecessary lights and heating systems: too many are paying lip service to power conservation while suburban households are having to make do without electricity and water for hours at a time.
Food supplies are getting back to normal. (Most supermarkets and convenience stores are restocked three or four times a day, which means that even the slightest disruption to logistics causes headaches.) Milk and bread were in short supply last week, and actually still are today. I couldn’t even buy orange juice this evening!