BY MARY BETH HORIAI
The environment column for Being A Broad this year will be dedicated to Energy and all it’s forms, usage, and mystery.
Until recently, many humans take little care to know or understand where energy comes from, how it is produced into electricity and other forms of power, and what the impacts are from this production and use. As long as everything is humming along and cell phones are being charged, trains are running on time, and homes are being heated and cooled then the “how” seems not all that important.
But for foreign women living in Japan, 2011 proved to be a year to start caring. The unsolvable problem with the Fukushima power plants and the constant concern of other potential nuclear accidents that could be caused by future earthquakes are strong reason for alarm and concern. Many foreign women struggle with decisions regarding what food and water is safe for their families and life changing decisions as to where to live. Some have children to consider and the option to move back to their homeland has become more appealing. Throughout 2012, this environment column will attempt to present useful, reliable information regarding energy, as well as spurring some questions to explore and contemplate.
Humans depend on energy for nourishment, growth, comfort, progress, travel, products, trade, communication, and discoveries. The topic of energy is broad and varied: from the production and usage of electricity, to the health and movement of water, the production of food and the impacts that occur. The most common use of energy is the production of electricity.
A simple review of the basics of energy production will be helpful in discussing the different types of sources used in producing electricity. Electricity is produced by some ‘source’ that produces heat to boil water which, in turn, creates steam to move a turbine connected to a generator, which creates a flow of electrons or electricity. These sources can be the heat from the sun or the earth, the burning of hydrocarbons, or the energy created by fission of atomic particles, as in nuclear power. Turbines can also be turned by the natural flow of wind or water (tidal and wave power). Obviously, the process is not as simple and straight forward as this, however, generally heat and steam is produced by some source, which turns a wheel (turbine) and creates electricity that is transmitted (moved) to the place where it is needed.
In recent times, the sources of energy have been of global concerns as each type used comes with costs, benefits, and associated problems. Sources can loosely fit into three major categories: fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas), renewable sources (wind, solar, thermal, and hydro), and nuclear. Fossil fuels sources, namely carbon from plants and animals trapped in perfect conditions of heat, pressure, and water for millions of years, have been extracted around the world since the 18th century and started the industrial revolution. Renewable sources have been in use equally as long and in some cases even longer, such as wind and water wheels, however, these sources have not received the same strong support from businesses, governments, and research universities that fossil fuel sources have, until recently. The third type of power source is nuclear, by far the most costly, complicated, potentially dangerous, and most sheltered industry existing. This type of energy production is the concern of many foreign women in Japan, Japanese nationals, and should be of major concern to all global citizens.
Japan has always been concerned with not having enough natural power resources and has been highly dependent on imported carbon sources, mainly oil from around the world. Eleven percent of Japan’s energy is derived from nuclear power and Japan has held high hopes to increase that percentage, until 2011, that is. Whether Japan will continue to expand the nuclear industry by opening new plants and reopening the over 30 plants that were shut down last year or whether a phase out of nuclear power plants will occur is yet to be seen. Japan’s experience, however, may be a harbinger of things to come and other nuclear power states should pay close attention.
Upcoming articles will include insights on TEPCO, food, water and air quality problems, radiation safety levels, and Japan’s energy alternatives.