10.20.12

Scary Energy Scenarios (Hallowe’en 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:15 pm by Administrator

Given that in today’s world every major and many minor disasters “go viral” in minutes rather than hours or days it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how widespread the impacts would be if any number of “scary energy scenarios” were to take place.   It should be noted that these events are themselves “Black Swans” because although they are predictable they are so unlikely that they are ignored by politicians and the general public until they occur at which time there is typically a huge, global over-reaction.

First, by way of example, let’s review the consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear plant disaster.  Twenty-five years after Chernobyl the general public had largely managed to put nuclear nightmares behind them and the development of nuclear power was continuing at a steady pace.  By 2009 there were more than 430 nuclear power plants in the world providing a truly scary amount of electrical generating capacity concentrated in a few countries; the U.S. – 19% of the country’s total electrical generation – the largest generator of nuclear power in the world; France – 80% of total electrical generation – the largest percentage of any country; Japan – 28% of total electrical generation before the Fukushima disaster, 7.5% since.

It is important to note that the tsunami did not directly impact 75% of Japan’s nuclear generating capacity – Fukushima represented only 17%.  However, the disaster eroded if not destroyed any trust the Japanese people had in the nuclear energy industry and its ability to run plants safely.  As a result only 2 of Japan’s 54 reactors have been allowed to continue to operate as of September 2012.

The short-term consequences of Fukushima have included a 17% rise in CO2 emissions putting at serious risk Japan’s ability to meet its stated objectives regarding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  Residential power rates are slated to increase by as much as 10% in 2013 – industrial rates have already gone up by almost double that amount.

But increasing costs and CO2 emissions are the tip of the iceberg.  The nuclear industry is a large and pervasive component of the Japanese economy.  If all of Japan’s nuclear plants are permanently shut down then the trillions of Yen tied up in those assets will become worthless.   Japan’s banking and financial sector will have a difficult time dealing with the large and potentially non-performing loans taken out to build these plants.  Thousands of skilled jobs will be lost and Japan’s balance of trade will be impacted negatively.

And the impact has not been contained to Japan.  All around the world the development of nuclear energy has essentially stopped.  Germany has made a commitment to shutter all 17 of its nuclear plants despite having no realistic plan for replacing that generating capacity and despite the fact that Germans already pay twice as much as the French for electricity.

The lesson – scary energy events can and do lead to even scarier consequences!  So, without further ado, here are some scary energy scenarios that might make you wake up in a cold sweat tonight.

1) A serious incident at the Fessenheim nuclear plant in eastern France, resulting in radioactive coolant polluting the Rhine River.  Although the region has been seismically stable for hundreds of years the plant does sit in a rift valley.  As we have seen in Indonesia and Japan the behavior of major faults is not totally understood so the possibility of a major earthquake in the area is real if very unlikely.  A failure at France’s oldest operating nuclear plant would further undermine public support for the nuclear industry in Europe and might well lead to rapid shut-down of plants throughout the continent.  The economic impact of losing such an important energy source (15% of EU electrical generating capacity in 2005) would be a nightmare scenario particularly given the financial difficulties being faced by the European community.

2) An explosion and fire at the Senboku Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Japan.  This is one of the safest LNG terminals in the world but that does not mean it is invulnerable to accidents.  As described in the documentary film  “The Risks and Danger of LNG” a catastrophic failure at an LNG terminal could lead to a large loss of life.  In the case of Japan, which was already dependent upon LNG for more than 25% of its electrical generation the potential impact of such a disaster on an already nervous and skeptical public could lead to significant reductions in the use of LNG.  Without nuclear or LNG power sources the world’s third largest economy would take a major hit and the global economy would suffer as a result.

3) A landslide in the northeastern portion of West Virginia essentially wipes out a small town with more than a thousand killed.  The source of the slide is quickly identified to be the “fracking” operation of a company producing shale gas from the Marcellus formation.   This disaster causes the federal government to impose a moratorium on shale gas development.  The result is an immediate spike in natural gas prices resulting in significant disruptions across a number of industries. 

These are all hypothetical situations which are very unlikely to occur.  But the question that must be addressed when planning for any disaster is “are we prepared for it?”  When it comes to these “Scary Energy Scenarios” I’m not so sure that the answer is “Yes”.

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