Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Worst Disaster Since World War II, Part II: An Approach to Reconstruction

Yesterday we noted that, in our opinion, the triad of disasters to hit Japan was more destructive than World War II, both in physical terms and psychologically. Without changing that assessment, however, we would like to qualify it.

The recent destruction was worse, but the potential for rebuilding and the available resources are much greater than in the mid-1940s. The industrial base is, despite some very heavy hits, still largely intact. The financial infrastructure, although being used improperly, is also completely intact and functioning. Even the energy system has not been dealt a fatal blow. With these three critical systems for the most part untouched, there is nothing to stop Japan from rebuilding the devastated areas with relative speed, and, at the same time, carrying out some necessary reforms to put the recovery on a "green," that is, a sound and sustainable footing, both economically and financially.

Of the three, energy is the most immediate. It may also, in some ways, be the easiest to solve, at least relative to the other two. The current structuring of industry, commerce, and finance in Japan "ain't broke" (at least, not in any way that is obvious to most people), so there is no real incentive to fix it. The nuclear emergency, however, has brought a number of problems, both actual and potential, to light.

Let's not waste time in recriminations about the "obvious" dangers of nuclear power due to damage suffered as a result of the worst earthquake in the country's history. Nor should we gloss over the problem by pointing out that, all things considered, nuclear energy has taken far fewer lives than coal mining or oil drilling, so everything must be all right. The task right now is to deal with the damaged reactors, and start supplying sufficient energy to the grid to speed recovery and reconstruction. Those reactors that are safe and fully operational should be maintained in use — for now.

Damaged facilities represent a more serious immediate problem. Clearly the country cannot do without power. If a reactor can be repaired quickly and safely, it must be put back into service. Those that are damaged beyond repair, or that cannot be repaired quickly or safely, should be shut down and replaced, but not with another reactor, or with conventional oil or coal fueled facilities, except on an extremely short-term basis.

The fact is, a tenth, a hundredth or maybe even a thousandth of the funds the Bank of Japan recently poured into the stock market to keep up the price level for speculators would, if used to develop a viable hydrogen-based power generation system, potentially have an e-macrosystem up and running in eighteen to twenty-four months, based on projections with which CESJ was supplied years ago.

We're not experts in energy generation (obviously), but we were told a few years back that "proof of concept" and ironing the bugs out of existing technology to fit the parts into an integrated system would cost between $5 and $10 million. This would be a drop in the bucket for a country like Japan. The system is based on "waste-to-energy" conversion, using toxic and otherwise non-recyclable "garbage" as fuel to convert hydrogen to produce electrical power plus pure water and other useful byproducts.

Coincidentally, we understand that one of the byproducts resulting from reducing toxic waste to non-toxicity by using it as fuel would be inert building blocks of great strength, surely a useful product when rebuilding a country. We don't know enough about the process, but it might even be possible to recover rare earths in usable form from discarded electronic equipment, thereby reducing dependency on foreign sources of supply.

Once the hydrogen-based energy system was proved, perfected and on-line, Japan could immediately begin phasing out existing nuclear plants, replacing them with the safer and much more profitable hydrogen system. One fact of which Japanese policymakers should be aware: switching back to traditional fossil fuels, even for the 10% or so of Japan's energy needs currently supplied by nuclear power, would only be achieved at tremendous cost. Hydrogen, however, is the most common element in the universe — it's what the sun runs on, and has for billions of years. Hydrogen is, to all intents and purposes, free. Japan can obtain all it wants from even the most polluted water, and clean up the environment in the process.

One more thing. A switch to "green" energy should be financed in way that is also "green," that is, sound, stable, sustainable and in which everyone can participate and enjoy the benefits not just of cheap and safe power generation through purchase, but the profits of the system through ownership. How to finance the future in a sound, sustainable and participatory way will be a significant issue in the weeks and months to come.

Recent events have shown how well the Japanese pull together and work toward a common goal and for the common good. It's time they start receiving benefits from their hard work and sacrifice, and be given the opportunity to own the future of their own country.


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