Japan's Long, Hot, Nuclear-Free Summer

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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.

But even if the summer is only average, there are peaks that could seriously strain the utility. Such a situation occurred in South Korea late last summer when parts of the country experienced major blackouts as the surplus was not enough to cover the sudden demand for electricity. Korea has 20 nuclear plants and Fukushima has caused that country's reliance on nuclear power to waver.

It should be noted that most of the reactors were in good working condition when they went off line, in accordance to Japan’s national requirement that every plant shutdown to undergo safety checks at 13-month intervals. By strong custom, local officials sign off on any restart. This used to be a formality but in the post-Fukushima atmosphere, many local officials have been reluctant to move.

In mid-April Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his top cabinet advisers declared the two Oi reactors were “safe enough” to resume operations, not exactly an overwhelming endorsement. The focus is on the Oi pair, as they were the first to pass “stress tests,” a computer-simulated exercise ordered by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

The local village council in Fukui gave Oi the green light to restart the two units, subject to the endorsement by the mayor and the governor of Fukui prefecture. Ordinarily this would be enough, but the governors of neighboring prefectures have asserted themselves into the situation, claiming, they too need to be convinced of their safety.

Most prominent among them is Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, who has taken a strong stand against nuclear power and has demanded that every locality within 100 km of the Oi plants have a say in the decision to restart. The city of Osaka is the largest shareholder in Kepco, so it can make things difficult at upcoming stockholders meeting.

Noda wants to see the plants restarted to help avoid potential power blackout in this vital region. But his priorities are primarily focused on passing a bill to raise the consumption tax and fending off opposition from former party president Ichiro Ozawa, recently acquitted of campaign financing violations. Neither raising taxes nor restarting nuclear power plants is very popular, and it is a question how much political capital Noda wants to expend on two unpopular causes.

Hashimoto represents a threat that has to be handled carefully. He is widely expected to field a new political party, which some pundits think could win as many as 50 seats in parliament in any new election, effectively wiping out the Democratic Party of Japan in this region. If there are blackouts this summer, the DPJ may claim that Hashimoto’s intransigence on restarts is the reason.

“Hashimoto is not responsible for the Oi reactors; the government and Kepco are,” counters Tetsunari Iida, head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policy, and a key advisor to the Osaka mayor. He has challenged Kepco’s assessments of the projected power shortages if the Oi reactors remain off line.

Time is running out. It takes roughly one month for an idled reactor to power up, once they have been given the go-ahead. So even if the restart order were given tomorrow, they would not be available until July at the earliest. And of course, additional delays in the restart could push things back to late summer, if in fact they contribute to the power needs of this summer at all.

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