Global Crisis/Innovation Blog 

Power to the People: Blessings We Take for Granted

 By Shlomo Maital



 Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant

  Easter and Passover religious holidays coincide, because the Jewish calendar is lunar, and Easter too is set according to the lunar calendar.   Both holidays celebrate freedom and redemption and observe those values with time-worn rituals.

   One of the elements of modern technology that has freed us from grinding labor is electricity – and it is something we all take for granted, an invisible blessing ignored and unappreciated, until there is a mishap and the lights go out.

    Japan’s earthquake/tsunami took 25,000 lives and did massive damage.  But according to David Pilling, writing in the Financial Times (April 14, p. 9), the loss of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactors will cause far more property and economic damage than the earthquake.  TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.), which operates the reactors, supplies close to a third of Japan’s electricity, to 2 million businesses and 29 million households in Tokyo.  Now, 13 of the company’s 17 nuclear reactors are out of action (not just those in Fukushima), and half of its 20 oil-fired thermal plants are out of action too, as well as the two coal-fired plants.  The result is having a profound effect. This summer, there will be widespread blackouts in Japan, as Japanese try to air condition their homes and power use surges.

    This in turn will damage huge swaths of industry – car parts, pulp and paper, steel, chemicals, breweries, computer chips, everything.  All depend on a reliable plentiful supply of power.

    “Modern Japan cannot function without TEPCO”, Pilling says.  “Modern anywhere cannot function without electricity,” he might have added.  TEPCo, he notes, is not a bad company. But it has been dogged by ‘moral hazard’ – by a long shoddy history of cover-ups and sloppy safety standards. And now the chickens have come home to roost.  TEPCO has hugely mismanaged the Fukushima accident.  And the Japanese government has bungled, in failing to nationalize the company and make the clean-up the responsibility of the government, which has far deeper pockets and resources.

   An unceasing supply of electricity, because it is always just there, is ignored by nearly everyone.   The people need power – and we need to bring power to the people, not just electric power, but power to regulate the electricity industry and make sure the electric companies (TEPCO is owned by shareholders) are run in a transparent, open and flawless manner.  There is no room for error here.  After BP’s disastrous oil spill, those who bought BP shares at the bottom made 70 per cent capital gains. This may happen with TEPCO as well.  It is time to insist that basic necessities like water and power must be run on a pro-social, not pro-profit basis.  Pilling asks, disturbingly, did TEPCO delay cooling the reactors with sea water, to avoid damaging equipment and suffering losses?  Only managers who put shareholders’ interests first would even dream of such a calumny.