Japan after Fukushima

Image of "Japan " by jannoon028 at
Image of “Japan ” by jannoon028 at

This spring I taught an “Introduction to International Studies” class, which had 12 students in it from Waseda university in Japan. They are outstanding students, and I always feel that I learn more from them than they from me during the class. During some of my individual conversations with the students I was struck by the impact that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami had on their lives. The subsequent nuclear accident magnified an already terrible crisis, in which over 15,000 people died. Now the country is also having to rethink its energy future, while dealing with nuclear cleanup. As Japan made the decision to close its nuclear reactors -now the subject of great debate- the entire country was plunged into efforts to conserve energy.

The quirky blog the Pink Tentacle (which now sadly seems to be inactive, as the last post was from April 2011) had a broad focus on everything from the graphic arts and history to science and technology in Japan For example, it has a collection of catfish prints created after the great 1855 quake. In traditional Japanese culture, earthquakes were caused by catfish spirits. After this nineteenth century quake a diverse set of catfish prints became bestsellers. In these prints, one can see a human mob chasing catfish for revenge, tradesman partying with the catfish (because the rebuilding brought them so much money), or the great god Kashima lecturing the catfish for having misbehaved. These prints are a great source for social history, as they show popular attitudes towards the earthquake’s social impact, and raise many questions. Why for examples, were prostitutes a particularly significant group depicted in some prints? …

Nuclear Secrecy and France

Image courtesy of “Idea go” at

In the aftermath of Fukushima, it’s clear the nation-states have not been having realistic conversations with their citizens about the risks of nuclear power. Many nations, such as Germany, are now moving away from nuclear power, but one European nation will not be making any changes soon, namely France. Instead, this country continues to place nuclear power at the center of its energy plan. Indeed, the country currently gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear, and has no plans to explore a different path. In this respect, it is almost unique in Europe, where most countries are rapidly investing in renewable energy with great success. Much poorer Portugal is about to get 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Other European countries have shown that it is possible to have a modern energy sector based primarily on renewable sources. Iceland obtains 100% of its energy from renewable sources, thanks to rich geothermal resources. Austria is over 70% renewable, while Norway has reached 97%, both helped by their hydro resources. Globally, a large number of countries (which range from New Zealand to Canada) get over 60% of their electricity from renewable sources. What this data shows is that the reliance on nuclear power is a choice, not a necessity. …

Renewable Energy and the Future of Nuclear Power

Engineer in solar plant courtesy of worradmu at

I’m teaching the “Introduction to International Studies” again this quarter. Because my university has an exchange program with Waseda University in Japan, the class is a mix of mostly American and Japanese students, which I really enjoy. Today I began my discussion of history by asking students to think about the three historical events or processes that had the largest impact on their families and themselves. For my Japanese students, there were two key events: World War Two and the April 2011 Fukushima earthquake. I think that disaster may be a defining event for their generation. …

The Keystone Pipeline and the Arkansas Leak

This image of Oil Barrels courtesy of Victor Habbick at

We are all still waiting for President Obama to make a decision about the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The President has been under intense pressure, because environmentalists believe that this is their best opportunity to win a victory against global warming. Their case probably just became politically stronger this week when an Exxon Mobile pipeline in Arkansas leaked Albertan oil. This is the second spill of Oil Sands petroleum this week, because on Wednesday a train derailed in Minnesota and also released oil, although far less than the 10,000 barrels spilled in Arkansas. Given the fact that the Keystone pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels a day -much more than the pipeline that just leaked- it’s clear that the Keystone XL pipeline presents significant environmental risks, despite promises by the petroleum industry that this will be the safest pipeline ever built.

The GOP pushed Obama to approve Keystone in their weekly radio address, with the argument that Keystone would create 140,000 jobs. In fact, this number is much too high, and there is no credible evidence to support this figure. Indeed, the State Department recently stated that once the pipeline is built, it will only create 35 permanent jobs in the U.S. Still, such arguments have gained the pipeline critical support. A recent poll found that most Americans support the pipeline, and believe that it can be built in an environmentally sound manner. Other groups -in particular native peoples- are much more skeptical. Recently an alliance of U.S. and Canadian indigenous groups promised to unite to block not only Keystone, but also two other pipelines that are intended to bring Oil Sands petroleum to market.

In the end, the key issue for environmentalists cannot be the risk of a leak, although this is real, but rather the pipelines’ impact on carbon dioxide emissions, given that oil from Oil Sands takes more energy to process than traditional petroleum sources. And in the background, there is Venezuela, with its huge reserves of unconventional oil. I enjoy reading posts at a website, The Oil Drum, which is a venue for people who believe in Hubbert’s Peak; that is, that the world has reached the half-way mark in its production of fossil fuels, an event which will determine the planet’s future. It’s a great source for energy news and analysis, but I don’t agree with the central premise. I don’t think the question is when will we run out of oil, but rather how dirty will oil have to become before we stop using it. In this debate, the Keystone XL pipeline will be a key decision. Events in Arkansas this week may help to shape that outcome.

Prof. Shawn Smallman


Colombia’s Oil Boom

Brazil, Canada and the United States are currently receiving a great deal of attention for an energy boom, which has seen dramatic growth in the oil produced in the Western Hemisphere. But there is one nation that may soon be added to this list, which has never been thought of as an energy power: Colombia. The reasons for this shed light on energy politics in South America, and suggest the costs that Venezuela may be paying for its policies.

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