Japan's Exploding Reactors and Myths of the Atom

Nuclear Energy Shields Us from Oil Dependence

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In an incredibly ill-fated play both of publishing date and policy being urged on deciders in the energy field, the Japan-based United Nations University (UNU), in February 2011 published a long research paper on how Japan, thanks to nuclear power could shield itself from a possible new Oil Shock.

The paper by Brendan Barrett claimed that Japan must move faster with plans to build more reactors, and was sitting on an energy security time bomb because it had slowed down its nuclear programme. Barrett wrote that if alarm bells sounded by the OECD's International Energy Agency and leading business corporations like Virgin Airlines in the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil were not heeded

“and our close proximity to the peak in world oil production is true, then Japan may be sitting on the equivalent of an energy security time bomb. The greatest concern is that this time bomb could explode as early as 2015, and with a high probability before 2020...”


One of the biggest problems for this myth is it has been heard before, many times and right across the policy making networks of all major oil import dependent countries of the OECD for more than 35 years. More recently, the same myth has been given heavy attention and large if not total support by energy deciders in the Emerging economies dependent on imported oil and gas, especially China and India.

The main problem with this myth is however simple: crying wolf did not work in the past, oil shocks came and went, and nuclear power-using countries fared no better or worse than countries not heavily committed to the atom. This real world read-out makes it easy to ask if the present disaster in Japan signals a wake-up call to the unreality of this key myth.

To be sure Japan's trade and industry ministry (METI) has played copybook correct, urging and planning considerable growth of nuclear power. Before the present disaster, METI was forecasting its role would grow from 10% of Japan's primary energy today, to 24% in 2030 through building and adding at least 14 new industry standard 900 MW reactors to Japan's fleet.

This stood at 55 reactors, the third-biggest in the world before the Fukushima disaster – but since then will likely count no more than 48 or 50 for some while, due to at least 5 to 7 reactors being either totally destroyed or irreparable due to tsunami damage or to very high radiological contamination . This especially concerns the 6-reactor Daichi site but possibly also the 4-reactor Daini site. Nearly all of the damaged reactors are 25 years old or more than 25 years old. Whether or not Japan continues developing nuclear power is now outside the tight circle of government and corporate deciders and the issue is democratized due to public concern, therefore bets are off for future Japanese reactor building.

We can surmise that Peak Nuclear in Japan may have occurred at a very precise date: 11 March 2011, but it is conversely hard - increasingly so - to put a date stamp on Peak Oil.


Due to the Japanese disaster we will now find that public opinion is easier to mobilize concerning the nuclear menace, than concerning an unsure and always delayed arrival of Peak Oil. Even in Japan, renowned for its civic obedience, opposition to nuclear power is mounting rapidly – for evident reasons as the extent of losses, the costs, and the almost open-ended health risks of the nuclear disaster becomes known. Cost estimates for the nuclear disaster, even a few weeks after the event, are scaling up rapidly: by comparison the Chernobyl disaster, concerning one reactor which suffered total meltdown likely cost a total of more than US$ 250 billion equivalent in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and across Europe over the 25 years since the catastrophe of 1986.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in Germany and France, citizen and political opposition to nuclear power has mushroomed since March 11th, with demands for a total halt to nuclear power now coming from mainstream political parties, like France's main opposition PS-Parti Socialiste. This was formerly a rock solid supporter of the atom, including the so-called plutonium economy based on massive development of FBRs-Fast Breeder Reactors and the building of giant sized national stockpiles of plutonium (in the French case some 450 000 tons by around 2035). From late March 2011 however, the PS officially seeks a complete shutdown of French nuclear power by 2031.

We can note that 1 kilogram of plutonium metal when fully detonated is equivalent to 20 000 tons of chemical explosive such as dynamite or TNT, and that 1 milligram of fully dispersed and inhaled plutonium will generate 500 lethal lung cancer doses. Saving oil with atomic energy presents what can be called a certain level of risk.

Underlining the highly asymmetric or tilted risk of intensive nuclear power development as a supposed strategy for reducing oil dependence. We find that while oil covers around 38%-40% of world final commercial energy demand, nuclear energy supplies only 15% of world electricity, which itself only supplies about 40% of total energy needs in the most electricity-intensive economies. In many Emerging and developing countries electricity supplies less than 25% of final demand – making the counterpart to almost open ended world nuclear risk being at most 6 percent of world final energy supply.


When we look at Peak Oil we find this is a highly complex subject. The reasons include nitty-gritty technical factors, especially fast growing output of Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) extracted during oil production – and increasingly from natural gas production - more than compensating the loss of conventional “black oil” production worldwide. Given the surge in shale and coal seam gas extraction, more gas condensate liquids will certainly be produced. Placing an exact date on when or even if Peak Oil will occur has been tried many times since the 2000-2005 period is difficult, and on the supply side, as well as demand side is getting more difficult. In a nutshell, one major problem for setting a date for Peak Oil concerns the basic question: how do we define “oil”?

Both for demand and supply side reasons, date forecasts for when world oil output becomes structurally and clearly less than world oil demand has been repeatedly pushed forward, with favoured dates as shown in the excerpt from the UNU article, now set at about 2015 or 2020. Ten years ago, the favoured forecast was for Peak Oil to arrive no later than 2012. By the end of 2012, because so many variables are in play on the demand side, as well as the supply side, it could even be necessary to suggest it will arrive by 2020 to 2025, or later.

Fighting the spectre of Peak Oil with the atom gets even more difficult to plead when we find that world oil demand, due to “demand side management”, and also due to the price of oil may continue at least a 5-year trend to extreme low annual growth rates, and proven ability to contract in a low OECD regional economic growth environment. This again deals a sharp setback for the favoured argument by the nuclear industry that it is very urgent to build more reactors all around the world because Peak Oil is imminent. The usual received wisdom is that world oil demand only stagnates, or even worse contracts, during painful and long economic recession but this rear view mirror wisdom is beginning to wane. Energy conservation, efficiency raising, the development of gas reserves and renewable energy sources, and changing social attitudes to energy, all play a part in this sea change.


Oil and the economy have been intensively focused study subjects in agencies, institutes and research centres for more than 35 years. This has thrown up many insights on the exact relations between what is called the energy economy and the better-known general economy. Unfortunately, most of these insights rarely trickle through the media and into the political domain, and the high ground is filled with outdated, often completely false concepts and notions.

Taking a key indicator like oil intensity of an economy, for example Japan versus countries with similar GDP per capita scores but low levels of nuclear power development shows almost nothing. For example both Japan and Australia have almost the same oil intensity of around 14 barrels per capital per year, but Australia is zero nuclear. Both France and Japan have intensively developed nuclear power, but France uses about 33 percent less oil per capita (11 barrels/capita/year compared with 14 for Japan). Other EU27 countries with a low nuclear energy economy but similar GDP scores to France, for example Italy or Spain either consume a little less oil, or a little more oil per capita that France – and much less oil than Japan.

When we compare the energy economic history over the last 25 years of countries with high/low oil intensities and high/low nuclear power development, we again get no conclusive evidence, at all, of nuclear power in any way saving oil across the economy and society. In some cases we even find negative correlation: as the role of nuclear energy increases, so does the oil intensity of that economy. One striking example is la plus parfait Nuclear Nation, France, where oil intensity in some economic sectors – especially agriculture – has raised about 15%-20% over 20 years, totally unaffected by rising nuclear electric power output.

The bottom line is simple: along with rapidly changing oil and gas supply side factors, demand side changes, energy economy change and social change the key argument that nuclear power “saves oil” is unsure and even archaic.


Oil security only concerns one thing: supply security. Nuclear security not only concerns uranium import dependence and vulnerability to cut-off for any reason (mine accidents and outages, commercial relations with supplier countries, terrorism), but also nuclear power plant accidents, waste management and nuclear weapons proliferation – including DU-Depleted Uranium weapons production and use. As we know, the most nuclear-intensive countries of today are either mostly or totally dependent on imported uranium. In turn this makes a mockery of the vaunted claim by the nuclear industry that atomic energy is “intrinsically” higher security than oil energy.

Date stamping Peak Oil is by necessity pushed forward, but Peak Uranium defined as world mine supply being structurally lower than annual demand for uranium for the world's 440-odd civil reactors, 292 research and military reactors, and 390 submarine and surface ship reactors has existed for more than 10 years. Concerning only uranium needs for world civil power reactors, world mine supply in 2010 was about 20 percent below demand. We can toy with the idea of what a similar shortfall would do to and for oil prices, if there was a 20 percent undersupply of world oil, about 17 million barrels a day “missing”.

Another vaunted claim for nuclear power and another myth is that atomic energy is low carbon and delivers “climate security”. In fact, as faithfully reflected by the very intense cost inflation operating in the nuclear sector, with reactor building costs growing at more than 15 percent per year in recent years, and explained by the industry as mainly due to raw material costs, this shows the high carbon oil, coal and natural gas intensity of the materials and processes used for nuclear plant building – plus the impact of nuclear energy assets being very speculative. This also applies; it goes without saying, to uranium mining, processing and transport, like nuclear waste processing, transport and long-term storage.

The bottom line is for the least sombre for the atom. Whether we are talking about geopolitical energy security, fuel supply security, climate security or economic security we find that nuclear power is very weakly placed as the saving grace for today's society and the global economy. The old-time claim that nuclear power was not only safe and clean, but also cheap and secure was never strong – and is today even weaker. The time for major energy policy change is now, and is likely to occur. 

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About Andrew McKillop