The nation’s last active nuclear reactor will go offline Saturday, leaving Japan completely devoid of an energy source that accounted for around 30 percent of its electricity when all systems were operating.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co. is set to halt reactor 3 at its Tomari nuclear plant for maintenance. It is the only one of Japan’s 50 usable reactors still active.
None of the suspended reactors has been restarted because of safety concerns sparked by the triple-meltdown crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant in March last year. The nation had an inventory of 54 reactors before the crisis.
If Japan continues to shun nuclear energy, power shortages will become a constant threat each summer, inconveniencing the public and acting as a drag on economic activity.
When the Tomari reactor is idled, it will mark only the second time that all of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been halted since the industry got its start in 1966.
The last time was April 1970, when Japan had only two reactors — one in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the other in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. Both were run by Japan Atomic Power Co. It will also be the first total suspension since nuclear energy became a key energy source.
In hopes of easing the public’s concerns, the government has introduced strict procedures for nuclear reactors to undergo before they can be restarted, although the deadlines for completing some of them can apparently be ignored.
One of the key procedures is computerized stress tests, which are simulations designed to check if reactors can withstand severe incidents like the quake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant.
Last month, the government approved the stress test results for reactors 3 and 4 at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant in Fukui and declared them safe to restart. But the government, which forfeit public trust in atomic energy via lax oversight and by witholding data that could have reduced fallout exposure at the height of the crisis, has been struggling to persuade a wary public to agree to any reactor restarts.
Government estimates claim power supplies will come up 0.4 percent short of demand this summer if all the reactors stay suspended and if Japan goes through a repeat of the record-breaking heat wave of two years ago.
In Kepco’s area in western Japan, power is projected to be 16.3 percent short of demand in a record-hot summer, while Hokkaido’s shortage is projected to be 3.1 percent.
This raises the possibility that more of the public will be asked to engage in power conservation like last summer, unless an unusually cool summer like that of 2003 occurs, when Tepco’s customers in eastern Japan were spared from outages after it was forced to shut down all 17 of its reactors amid a defect scandal.
Trade minister Yukio Edano has hinted that Japan may have to resort to rolling blackouts or mandatory curbs on power consumption in some regions to survive the summer.
Businesses, especially manufacturers, aren’t keen on that idea.
“Last summer, we cooperated by saving electricity without considering the cost, but it is difficult to continue,” said an official at a machinery maker.
Another headache is the soaring cost of procuring LNG and other fossil fuels for thermal power generation to offset the loss of atomic energy.
The nine major utilities outside Tepco booked a combined ¥3.6 trillion in fuel costs for thermal power plants in the year that ended in March.
Seven of them incurred net losses for the year, which means soaring fuel costs may force them to raise prices.
While problems are mounting from the break with atomic power, the movement for fully denuclearizing is winning growing public support.
Late last month, mayors of municipalities from 35 prefectures set up a forum to pursue the goal of completely abandoning nuclear power.
Hiroshi Takahashi, an analyst at Fujitsu Research Institute, said it would not be appropriate to force the public to make a choice over two extremes, such as reactor restarts or rolling blackouts.
“We should have calm discussions, separating long-term visions from short-term measures,” he said.
Nagasaki mayor’s plea
Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue has called on global leaders to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons at a preparatory meeting in Vienna for the 2015 nonproliferation review conference.
At the first session Wednesday of the committee tasked with organizing the event, Taue said he trusts the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference “will clearly show how and in what time frame a world without nuclear weapons will be realized,” as urged by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Calling on leaders to make further efforts toward nuclear disarmament, Taue described the global amount of defense-related spending as “absurd” and “only leading to a more dangerous world.”
“I wonder if representatives from the nuclear powers understand the true horror of nuclear weapons,” Taue said, urging participants at the 2015 conference to “consider the inhumanity of atomic weapons.”
Referring to hibakusha who are also visiting Vienna for the preparatory meeting, Taue said their voices enable the world to “see and discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.”