Paul Nitze: We’re more like the Japanese than we think
As a 12-year-old kid spending the summer in Kyoto, I was struck by the same thing most Americans notice when they visit Japan – this is one highly ordered society. My affinity for all things Japanese goes a bit further back, to my birth in Tokyo and to the first two years of my life spent there. I have no memories of those earliest days, but I can recall vividly those three sticky months in Kyoto in 1990. Once you’ve gotten over the initial alienation of being in a rich society that is many cultural removes from the U.S., it’s the structure of daily life that sticks out. For me the “ah ha” moment wasn’t seeing the trains, or the finely raked temple gardens, or the peaches in their individual padded containers. It was the two weeks I spent at a Japanese summer camp while my parents traveled.At that point I’d already been to camp in the States, and thought I knew what I had coming. But this was camp as it existed only in some counselor’s dog day dreams. The Japanese kids in attendance (I was the only American) did as directed all the time! Sure, they giggled and ran around and hit each other, but when the counselors ordered them to get in line or turn out the lights, they just did it. No reminders needed.As the (literally) sickening nuclear tragedy in Japan unfolds, direction unknown, American news reports have latched onto this stereotype of an ordered society to explain the response. Spun positively, we’re told that Japanese society is better-equipped than any other to respond to this kind of tragedy and engage in national rebuilding. Spun negatively, we’re told that a paper-pushing bureaucracy at Tokyo Power & Electric and various government agencies perpetuated flaws in Japan’s nuclear infrastructure and have hampered the response.It’s a given that the meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi plant will force a reevaluation of nuclear power at home and around the world. Even if this is contained to a partial meltdown with local effects, the cleanup efforts around the plant will stretch on for years and will scar global perceptions of nuclear safety. American politicians who recently sounded the nuclear drumbeat may hush up.My hope is not that the Fukushima Daichi meltdown brings nuclear power development to a screeching halt. It should make us exceedingly humble about our ability to harness the atom safely. That’s especially true here, where we’ve conveniently ignored the problem of storing spent fuel. But my instinct is to prefer even dangerous and expensive nuclear technology to oil from the Gulf. Rather, what I’d like to hear is some recognition that when it comes to energy policy, we’re just as ordered as the Japanese. Smart Democrats, including the president, have latched onto market-based language pioneered by Republicans. One of the most frequently uttered words in the most recent State of the Union speech was “investment.” In President Obama’s words, “Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.” Of course, as many Republicans have since pointed out, one man’s subsidy is another man’s investment. Which is a truism that Democrats should embrace instead of eliding. We need to stop pretending that, unlike the Japanese, we trust the gods of the marketplace.Every time local energy guru Amory Lovins talks about building new nuclear plants, he leads with the cost, not with the danger. In a 2008 article titled “Forget Nuclear,” Lovins makes the case that the cost of building and running a new nuclear plant is high and heading higher, at the same time renewable alternatives are heading the other direction on the cost curve. A new nuclear plant might cost 14 cents a kilowatt hour, once all the costs are loaded in, against ten cents or less for wind, solar, or geothermal. Only government subsidies allow any of these technologies to compete against coal, the cost leader. The great energy bill debate of 2010 ended with a whimper, as no bill reached the President’s desk. But the leading template at the end was a bill written by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman that would have directed approximately $100 billion in total loan guarantees and tax breaks to the nuclear industry. The same types of subsides have allowed both nuclear and renewable technologies to succeed in other countries, including Japan. There’s no free lunch. We take it upon ourselves, sometimes with good reason, to criticize the Japanese for running a more paternalistic economy. Here in the United States we run our energy sector exactly the same way while pretending otherwise. That has the unpleasant effect of harming competition while doing nothing to address our other needs – like breaking our addiction to oil or putting a lid on carbon emissions.
Paul Nitze has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.
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Aspen City Council’s recent actions are proof that you get what you pay for, argues Elizabeth Milias in her Red Ant column this week.