Japan’s sorrow and its energy links

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

By the time this article is published, we should have a better idea of some of the impacts of the nuclear disaster occurring in Japan on the heels of the earthquake
and tsunami.

As of today, it appears no one really knows what is going to happen. Our initial response to the calamity was personal. We immediately e-mailed a former graduate student whose wedding we attended in Japan and asked how she and her family were doing. They survived the earthquake and tsunami. She remained frightened and uncomfortable with the strong ongoing aftershocks.

Since the nuclear disaster, she wrote that they are safe, but electricity has been cut several times.

Two top U.S. officials, Steven Chu, secretary of Energy, and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicated in testimony before Congress that the catastrophe roughly equaled what occurred at Chernobyl.

Given the conflicting reports coming from Japan, the United States is sending its own personnel to measure the levels of radioactive releases and offer advice and assistance in trying to control them. President Barack Obama (D) is sending our military experts in responding to nuclear events.

The U.S. Embassy has told Americans within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate the area based on what is considered appropriate if a similar event occurred in the United States. Japanese officials have told people living within 12 miles of the plant to evacuate the area affecting 200,000 people.

As radiation levels are rising in Tokyo, several foreign governments and firms have advised their personnel to evacuate the city. With a population of 12 million, we wonder if any government would call for citizens to evacuate, even if conditions warranted it, given the complexity of implementing such an undertaking.

The situation brings to mind Thomas Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he argues societies collapse for economic reasons as a result of decreasing marginal returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovations.

As one of the world.s most advanced technological societies experiencing the world’s most expensive natural and technological disasters, he aging and anxious population of Japan is faced with a monumental challenge in its effort to rebuild the economy.

Thousands of square miles have been decimated, even without the adverse impacts of the nuclear disaster. It will take years to rebuild the infrastructure of rail service, ports, power lines, roads, bridges, schools, water systems and other components of a modern society. Still unknown is how many square miles of landscape will be uninhabitable for years to come.

The impact on the global economy and that of the U.S. is bound to be substantial as Japan redirects its energy and investments back into rebuilding its own economy, as opposed to buying the debt of the United States.

Also unknown is the impact the disaster will have on U.S. energy policies. With the coal mining and Gulf oil disasters, Middle East oil wars and potential nuclear woes, efficiency and renewable energy are likely to garner more support than they have to this point.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the March 23-29, 2011, issue

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