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The albatross of nuclear power in Japan

by Philip Brasor

According the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the residents of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area are facing the crisis of a power shortage this summer because most of the company’s nuclear reactors will remain shut down for inspections and repairs stemming from last year’s discovery that the company had for years failed to report safety violations at its nuclear facilities.

The utility is currently running a public-relations campaign that calls on customers to cut electricity consumption so as to avoid potential blackouts this summer.

Because everyone agrees that saving energy is a good idea the campaign seems irreproachable, but when analyzed in conjunction with its stated purpose — to avoid blackouts — it sounds strange. Generators produce power to meet demand for electricity from moment to moment, so “saving” energy right now has no effect, say, several months down the road.

In order to avoid blackouts by saving energy, consumers have to cut back at the moment demand peaks. According to Tepco, demand will peak in the summer, and in one of their TV spots, they show someone opening a book to a page that reads “1 to 4 p.m.,” the period when demand is most likely to peak on a given day.

People who see the ad will believe that between those times the electricity demand is high, but what it actually means is that at moments during this period demand may spike. Or it may not. In 2001, energy demand exceeded 60 million kw — the amount that Tepco says it needs to keep Tokyo operating normally — on only eight days, and for no more than an hour or so on each of those days.

The campaign targets home consumers, but the real purpose isn’t really to convince people to turn off appliances. Home electricity use accounts for about 30 percent of total energy consumption, according to consumer group estimates (Tepco claims it doesn’t have such statistics). It’s more effective to get industry to cut consumption. The real reason for the campaign is to convince the public that there is a crisis.

In other words, the ads are mentally preparing the residents of Tokyo for possible blackouts and the media has gone along with the scheme. Last week, Sapio ran a hysterical article that compared Tepco’s travails to the end of the world. Newspapers are reporting that the utility is frantically making deals with other regional power companies to buy energy as needed. Tepco estimates that it will be able to supply about 56 million kw and projects that peak demand during the July-August period could reach 64 million kw. The company announced that it hopes to have six to eight more nuclear reactors online by July, which would be enough, but first it has to win the approval of people who live near the reactors. That’s why industry minister Takeo Hiranuma went to Niigata last week to apologize to the people of Kashiwazaki for the scandal, since the city is home to reactors that supply Tepco.

All these efforts to get those reactors up and running are being carried out for an important reason. Tepco is required by law to supply enough power to its customers. If it fails, it is subject to huge lawsuits. But there are plenty of places to obtain power when needed. According to the Citizens’ Energy Research Center, a nongovernment organization, Hokkaido’s generators can supply loads of electricity in summer due to its cooler climate, and JR East has said it can sell electricity to Tokyo. They also note that large companies and hospitals that need continuous electrical power already have emergency backup systems.

If Tepco were genuinely concerned about saving electricity, they’d apply for rate increases, which is what every utility in the world does when they want to curb usage. But the main objective of the PR campaign isn’t energy conservation, but rather convincing consumers that they need those nuclear reactors when, in fact, they’re doing all right without them. Between April 15, when the No. 6 reactor in Fukushima went off-line for inspections, and May 7, when the No. 6 reactor in Kashiwazaki went back online, Tokyo residents were 100 percent nuclear-free for the first time in decades. There were no problems at all.

Nuclear advocates always say that Japan needs nuclear power so that it isn’t dependent on foreign oil, an argument that supposedly addresses both environmental and economic concerns. But last year’s scandal showed that, whatever dangers lie in foreign oil dependence, there are more immediate dangers inherent in nuclear power. Economically, nukes are insupportable. It is extremely expensive to shut them down and then start them up again, and if the scandal has taught us anything it’s that nuclear reactors need to be shut down someday.

In an interview that appeared in the June 1 issue of Safety for Food and Life, Meijo University physics professor Atsushi Tsuchida said that all of Tepco’s nuclear reactors have developed structural problems, which means the problem is in the basic design. Shutting down reactors for inspections and repairs should therefore be part of the normal operating procedure. Last year’s scandal emerged when it was discovered that Tepco covered up these unforeseen problems in the ’80s and ’90s. In response, the government has simply lowered safety standards. Effective this October, cracks that previously required repairs will no longer be considered reason enough for shutting down a reactor.

In the final analysis, however, it’s difficult to blame Tepco for the scandal. According to Tsuchida, Japan’s regional power suppliers never wanted nuclear power. Back in the ’70s, the president of Hokuriku Power was removed from his post when he told the government he didn’t want a nuclear reactor built within his jurisdiction. By that point, the government had decided that nuclear would be the basis of Japan’s energy policy, and, with the media on board, the only obstacle to the total realization of that policy right now is public opinion.