Despite producing only trifling amounts of oil domestically from fields off its west coast, Japan is the third largest oil consumer in the world behind the U.S. and China, as well as the third largest net importer of crude oil. Imported oil accounts for some 45 percent of Japans energy needs. Besides bringing in a lot of oil, Japan is the worlds largest importer of both coal and liquefied natural gas. Against this backdrop of imported fossil fuels, its no surprise that Japan has embraced nuclear power; worldwide, only the U.S. and France produce more nuclear energy.
Factoring in that it would take decades to ramp up capacity on alternative renewable energy sourcesright now hydropower accounts for three percent of Japanese energy usage and other renewable sources like solar and wind only one percentand that Japan must import just about all its fossil fuels, it becomes obvious that the country will need to rely on nuclear power for some time to come, despite the risks.
Supplying the same amount of electricity by oil, for example, would increase oil imports by about 62 million metric tons per year, or about 1.25 million barrels per day, says Toufiq Siddiqi, a researcher with the nonprofit East-West Institute. He adds that at the current price of oil per barrel (roughly $100), switching out nuclear for oil would cost Japan upwards of $46 billion per year. Further, it would take almost a decade to build enough new oil, coal or natural gas-fired power plants to provide the equivalent amount of electricity, and tens of billions of dollars per year would be required to do so, he concludes.
In the short term, the easiest way for Japan to make up for its reduced nuclear output is by importing more natural gas and other fossil fuels, sending its carbon footprint in the wrong direction. Whats less clear is whether Japanese policymakers pre-existing plans to increase the countrys nuclear capacitythe stated goal is to generate half of Japans electricity via nuclear power within two decades as part of a larger effort to trim carbon dioxide emissionswill still be followed following the Fukushima accidents.
The Fukushima plant failures are likely to impact the always evolving energy mix worldwide as well, not just within Japan. Many analysts expect the nuclear disaster in Japan to cause a shift toward the increased use of natural gas worldwide. Of course, the downside for the environment is that natural gas is a fossil fuel and its use contributes significantly to global warming. While solar and wind power can take up some of the slack, these and other renewables are at least decades away from the scalability needed to power a significant share of a modern industrial societys energy requirements.
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