Japan is fast approaching its second summer since the disastrous meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, and the first one in which the country may have to make do without the output of any nuclear power station.
Other countries have frozen the building of new nuclear plants or declared moratoriums, but no country historically so dependent on nuclear power as Japan has gone virtually cold turkey. The last operational nuclear plant, a station in northern Hokkaido, flickered out in early May.
Just two years ago at this time, Japan could draw on 54 nuclear plants (not all operating at the same time) supplying about 30 percent of the country’s electric power. At this time one year ago, even after the disaster at Fukushima, the country still had about a dozen plants in operation.
The Japanese word setsuden, meaning electricity conservation, was the byword in 2011. Tokyo Electric Power Co., owners of the Fukushima plants, was still projecting rolling blackouts. Households were urged to conserve energy; factories were ordered to cut back. Overhead lights were removed in hallways and escalators were shutdown.
So far there are few signs of setsuden this summer, at least in Tokyo. The newest addition to the capital’s skyline, the 600-plus meter Sky Tree, the world’s tallest tower that opened May 22, gleams a bright red from a thousand electric lights in the evening.
Of course, a projected 10 percent hike in electric rates for homeowners to cover the fast rising costs of importing alternative fossil fuels, mainly natural gas, might go a long way toward encouraging more conservation. Large-energy industrial users in Tokyo have already been slapped with a 17 percent electric rate hike.
Most of the concern about possible electricity shortages is focused on the Kansai region to the west of Tokyo, including the large cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. This area is historically very dependent on nuclear power. The Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) got about half its electric power from 11 nuclear reactors, all of them clustered in Fukui prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.
Unless at least two of its reactors located in the village of Oi are restarted, the region could suffer an energy shortfall of as much as 16 percent if this summer turns out to be as hot as the record-breaking 2010, says the utility. That figure is hotly disputed by various sides in the nuclear debate, however.