Even Tokyo Is Turning Off (Some) Lights

By Todd Crowell

TOKYO – The people of Tokyo, the world’s largest and in many ways richest city, are learning how the other half lives - that half of the developing world that is used to brownouts and blackout power shortages, a kind of Baghdad without bombs or bullets.

Unlike the tsunami-devastated northeast coast of Japan, there is no real hardship here, but many little accommodations to what might be called a post-3/11 (the devastating earthquake hit on March 11) world. After all, Tokyo is like a giant, superbly calibrated machine that runs on electricity.

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The glittering neon signs that lit up busy districts such as the Ginza and Shinjuku, and were in a way an icon of Japan, are mostly dark now. The lights have also been turned off other monuments such as the Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge because of the imperative to conserve.

Tokyo and surrounding communities such as Yokohama get their electricity from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which is the snake-bit owner of the four stricken Fukushima nuclear power plants, not to mention six others nuclear plants nearby that are relatively safe now. But shut down for how long, nobody knows.

Shortly after the earthquake struck – and gave Tokyo itself a pretty good rocking – Tepco announced it was forced to institute rolling power blackouts lasting four hours or so because it could not supply total electricity demand without further conservation.

In fact, most of Tokyo has responded with a lot of little conservation. Building lobbies are dark and cold. Where a building might have four elevators, it has two working. For mid-rise buildings, people use the fire escape. Escalators which run on electricity at railroad stations have been shut. You can use the stairs.

Another Japanese icon affected by the power drain are the ubiquitous vending machines, which are on virtually every corner shining like glow worms at night. There are an estimated five million of them in Tokyo and by some accounts they soak up the electrical output of a nuclear power plant.

Whether that is true or not, they use a lot of energy. Under pressure, the vending machine companies are turning off the night lights, but insist that their livelihoods depend on serving heated drinks. All of these little measures do add up, and Tepco has been able to cancel some of the power outages.

Tepco is in dire straits: its stock hammered, its ratings lowered, its sources of power damaged or destroyed. The utility owns 17 nuclear power plants, of which 13 are shutdown because of earthquakes. That doesn’t even take into account the 17 coal and gas fired power plants that were also damaged in the quake and put out of operation.

Three years ago another earthquake impacted Tepco’s seven nuclear plants on the Sea of Japan taking all seven out of commission (three are still down). But then the utility could draw power by firing up more coal plants and drawing power from utilities further north. But those utilities have their own problems now.

The utility will face enormous costs for clean up and liability. The six reactors at Fukushima will never operate again. A government hand in Tepco’s rehabilitation will be needed. If there ever was an entity too big, or more accurately, too important to fail it is the company that supplies electricity to 45 million people in the capital and its environs.

Tokyo’s train system, which moves literally millions of commuters each day, has been operating on reduced schedules to save energy. The main truck lines into downtown are running fairly normally but service in many outlying areas have been curtailed. During the past week department stores and other establishments cut back hours to save on energy and commuting.

Shortly after the earthquake hit on a Friday afternoon the entire train system came to a halt. It forced not a few people working down town to walk in their dress shoes back home; not a few of them arriving home almost as dawn was breaking.

France – home of “vive l’nuclear” - was the first foreign embassy here to advise its nationals to leave Tokyo. It was followed by other nations such as Australia. Germany and a few other countries have moved their embassy operations to Osaka in the south.

The stricken reactors are 170 miles (240 km) from Tokyo. The official evacuation zone is 20 km around the Fukushima plants, and people living 20 miles (30 km) away have been advised to stay indoors. The zones have not been expanded since they were first established more than a week ago. Most people have left the zones.

The United States has advised people living within 50 miles (80 km) of the plant to move out. But Washington also has a delicate problem. It’s one thing for European governments to tell their citizens to leave, but the U.S. maintains three major military bases in the Tokyo area (and one north of the disaster zone).

If the U.S. were to pull its forces out now it would send a very strong message to Japan that they can’t be relied upon in times of crisis, thus endangering the Japan-U.S. alliance, which had already been strained by disputes over bases on Okinawa.

The U.S, has responded to calls for help, although the help is mostly limited to aiding those victims of the earthquake and tsunami, not the nuclear plant. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is sailing off shore, along with other vessels, serving mainly as a refueling platform for helicopters.

Mid-week, concern arose over food safety, as some milk at dairy farms in the prefecture surrounding the reactors were found to have trace elements of radioactive iodine and cesium. Also contaminated was some spinach from the farms to the north.

Among the expatriate community, people are asking each other: “are you a ‘runner’ or a ‘stay-putter’?” Quite a few are heeding their embassies advice and leaving Japan; or, at the very least, suddenly finding that they always wanted to take a vacation in beautiful downtown Osaka.

The head of one English language school, which employs many expatriate instructors, said that by the end of the first week of the disaster he had lost 40 percent of his expat staff to the bug out. The Japanese employees left behind to pick up the load are not impressed, he says.

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

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