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Q. Dear Umbra,

How much does Fukushima (land loss, clean-up, rehousing people) add to the average cost of electricity (kWh) in Japan over the period they have not been running reactors? Compared to renewable, etc.?

Matthew B.
Melbourne, Australia


A. Dearest Matthew,

Your letter made its way to my inbox before the latest concerns over leaks at Fukushima hit the news. I don’t know why you were sitting around of an August day wondering about utility rates in Japan, and I’m not exactly a deep expert on the subject, but I do enjoy the occasional break from lightbulbs and bug spray. Plus, I like your accent. So here we go.

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As a refresher for those who are fuzzy on the facts, several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo melted down in March 2011 after a major earthquake and tsunami hit. The disaster forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, posed radiation risks locally and fears farther afield, and sparked a heated global debate about nuclear power.

It also showed us just how tricky this energy business can be. Before the meltdown, Japan got 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power, and was heading to 50 percent by 2030. But then the gummint shut down the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors for safety checks, and Japan was suddenly nuclear-energy-free for the first time since the 1960s.

What happened next? With power sources uncertain and rolling blackouts unappealing, the government asked people and businesses across Japan to reduce their energy consumption. Through simple steps like adjusting the settings on air conditioners, turning off lights, and working during off-peak hours, the nation cut its energy use a whopping 15 percent during the summer of 2011. (Three cheers for saving energy!)

Japan also started looking at other power sources. Solar is now taking off in the land of the rising sun, thanks to government incentives. Even with surcharges passed on to utility customers, there’s broad public support for renewable energy. The country is set to become the world’s leading solar market this year, installing the sun-powered equivalent of five to six nuclear reactors.

But all that hasn’t been enough to make up the difference. Enter the oil (and coal and gas) man. Japan spent $249 billion importing fossil fuels in 2012, a 10 percent increase from the year before — which was itself a 25 percent increase from pre-Fukushima days. These filthy fuels now account for 90 percent of the country’s energy (compare that to 84 percent in the United States and 94 percent in Australia, both too high).

In the Not a Coincidence Department, Japan reported record-high carbon emissions this year. It had been trying to cut those levels 25 percent by 2020. Ouch.

Of course, one promising, low-carbon fuel source is … nuclear power. Which is why a newly installed government in Japan is rethinking nuclear: Two of the country’s reactors are up and running again, and more are expected to come back online this fall — at least, they were before the latest news broke.

Are you still with me, Matthew? I know no one else is. Here’s the deal on electricity rates. Japan has a few things happening with its economy, so not everything can be pinned on Fukushima. But energy prices this June were nearly 10 percent higher than last year, and record-high rates are expected by September. Those rate increases included some hefty ones made by Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the troubled Fukushima plant. That is known, in some circles, as a fine how-do-you-do. Overall, looks like rates there are about even with yours in Australia, somewhere around 25 cents per kilowatt-hour if I have my chart-reading goggles [PDF] on right; that’s higher than in Europe, and about double the average we pay here in America.

Listen, the topic of nuclear power is messy and contentious, no matter where one lives. Japan’s unexpected experiment has shown us a few things we know but sometimes forget: Fossil fuels stink, and great things are possible when a government commits to conserving energy and supporting renewables. Your next assignment, Matthew, is to figure out what will happen from here. As for me, I’m back to lightbulbs and bug spray.