Idling of Oi No. 4 unit to again halt all atomic power

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

With Sunday’s shutdown of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi No. 4 reactor for regular safety inspections, Japan will be without nuclear power for the first time since July 2012.

How long it stays that way is the subject of a political struggle involving local governments hosting the plants, utility customers concerned about price increases, pro-nuclear politicians, and a Nuclear Regulation Authority trying to grapple with the crisis at Fukushima No. 1 even as it faces pressure to divert limited personnel and funds to speed up safety inspections at plants elsewhere.

Sunday’s shutdown in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, follows that of the plant’s No. 3 reactor earlier this month for regular inspections, which must take place approximately every 13 months.

Such inspections normally take four to six weeks. But the Oi reactors must pass new safety standards that came into effect in July.

Controversy has erupted between officials from the NRA, Fukui Prefecture and Kepco, which desperately wants to get the reactors back up and running, over whether a fault line discovered beneath the reactors is active.

After disagreement in the NRA over whether the fault might be active, an NRA team said earlier this month that it was not. But this is not the final word, and further inspections are needed. The way the fledgling NRA has handled the situation is drawing criticism from heavily pro-nuclear officials in Fukui.

“Safety is important, but if you waste time, that too has an effect on safety. The Fukui nuclear power plant sites have a long history and respond to risks. My position is therefore different from other prefectural governors,” said Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who is urging the NRA to complete the inspections as soon as possible.

But despite hints by Kepco that the Oi reactors could be online again by the end of the year, it’s unclear if that will happen. Four utilities have applied to restart 12 reactors under the new guidelines. In addition to the Oi reactors, the undermanned NRA has already agreed to prioritize eight requests,including Shikoku Electric’s Ikata No. 3 plant, Kyushu Electric’s Sendai No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, the Genkai No. 3 and 4 reactors, and Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari No. 3 reactor.

In Fukui, restarting the plants is about local profits and jobs. Of the prefecture’s 8,200 firms, about 1,600 — ranging from construction firms to hotels and restaurants — rely on its 13 commercial nuclear reactors for at least part of their revenue.

Nationwide, about 46,000 people work full time for firms involved with nuclear power, according to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF). This includes 7,000 utility workers at the plants themselves, plus around 11,000 employees at firms involved in plant and equipment manufacturing. About 87 percent of JAIF member firms said earlier this year they expected sales to continue falling if the nuclear plants were not restarted.

“About 40 percent of nuclear power workers are employed locally. If the power plants are left off for a long time, we’ll see an effect on the economy,” the JAIF warned in its annual survey of the industry.

For Kepco, getting the Oi reactors restarted is of paramount financial importance. The utility has recorded losses of more than ¥200 billion since the March 11, 2011, disasters. It is warning of higher utility bills coupled with possible further electricity saving measures for the winter.

For the most part, figures show that even with this year’s particularly hot and humid summer, Kepco had a sufficient supply of power. The utility said there were 12 days in July and August where demand briefly exceeded 90 percent of available supply, and one brief period on Aug. 22 where demand reached 96 percent of capacity. Voluntary measures to curb electricity use were taken by local Kansai governments and some businesses, but there were no mandatory cuts.

But staying nuclear-free, not enforcing mandatory cuts in electricity usage and yet continuing to live a pre-March 11 lifestyle has cost both Kansai and Japan. The country’s bill for imported fossil fuels soared by about ¥3.2 trillion between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2012. For this fiscal year — which kicked off after the government’s verbal beat-down of the yen — the cost is expected to be nearly ¥3.8 trillion more than when the nuclear plants were running.

Overall, Japan relied on nuclear power for about 32 percent of its electricity prior to March 2011. By contrast, LNG supplied 47 percent of Japan’s electricity in 2012, up from 33 percent in 2010, and oil supplied 19 percent, up from 4 percent, also in 2010. Nuclear supplied about half of Kepco’s power. With only the Oi plants operating in 2012, that fell to just 2 percent.