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Japan faces a long, hot, nuclear-free summer


Is Japan — and particularly the Kansai region — going to have enough electric power to get it through peak summer demand? The Meteorological Agency’s three-month projection for May through July, posted on its website (www.jma.go.jp/jp/longfcst/000_1_10.html) hedges its bets. For the four main islands, the agency sees a 20 percent chance of an unseasonably cold summer, a 40 percent chance of average temperatures and a 40 percent chance of above-average temperatures. (An updated forecast will be issued this coming Friday, May 25.)

Unfortunately “average” does not necessarily mean that the temperature won’t reach extremes.

“If for example we have unseasonably cool summer weather for one week, and then the following week it’s extremely hot, the average for these two weeks will work out as an ‘average summer,’ ” meteorologist Haruo Ono explains to Shukan Shincho (May 17).

Take 2007, when the cities of Tajimi in Gifu and Kumagaya in Saitama posted the all-time record high temperature for Japan, 40.9 degrees Celsius. That entire summer the temperatures were only 0.4 degrees above average, yet by no means could it have been called an “average” summer — Ono’s point being that even one day when the mercury soars can push up risk of an unexpected blackout.

Such a situation occurred in South Korea at 3:30 p.m. last Sept. 15, when parts of the country experienced major power blackouts. The country’s 3.43 million kW power surplus was simply not enough to cover the sudden surge in demand.

Actually, nobody knows for sure how newly nuclear-free Japan will be coping with power demands this summer, and weekly magazine assessments have been swinging from nervous pessimism to guarded optimism. Such magazines as Shukan Post (May 18) and Shukan Gendai (May 19) have raised accusations that the power utilities and their backers are exaggerating the predicament, using fear tactics to justify price increases and get the government and communities on board to agree to a restart of some nuclear plants as a stopgap measure.

On the other hand, Aera (May 14) suggests that while it won’t be easy, Japan can make it through the summer without nuclear power. Even the Kansai area, which faces a serious shortfall, is said to have latent capacity in the form of thermal generators such as two with 1.2 million kW at Misaki-cho, built in 1977, that were shut down in 2005 due to low demand. Another thermal generator in Miyazu City, Kyoto, can produce 750,000 kW. If these are put back on line, they can supply approximately 83 percent of the capacity of the shut down Oi nuclear plant in Fukui.

Shukan Taishu (May 28) shares Aera’s view, quoting Shunsuke Funase, an authority on environmental issues, who asserts that if the country practices the same level of conservation that was in effect last summer, things should work out all right.

“Japan has a number of thermal generation plants currently not in use, along with dams that generate pumped-storage hydroelectricity (which operate by pumping water from lower to higher levels during the night, when power demand is low, and then releasing the water to drive turbines during hours of peak power demand).

“If you count these, plus major companies’ in-house generation capacity, and people’s willingness to conserve power, there will be enough to go around,” Funase adds.

Nevertheless, at the grassroots level, businesses will be affected in a variety of ways.

“During the rolling blackouts in 2011, our branches halted delivery and acceptance of packages after dark,” a source at Yamato Transport Co. tells Shukan Shincho. “Elevators weren’t moving and intercoms to call householders didn’t function. Mishaps related to storage of chilled delivery items also occurred.”

“Even if the periods without power had been at set at other times than they were, I still couldn’t open my shop,” the operator of a sushi restaurant in Saitama Prefecture recalls of last year’s post-March 11 power outages. “From evening onward I had no lighting or heat. As it was still early spring, I managed to keep the fish from spoiling; but if this were to happen during the summer, then the sushi shops will be out of business.”

While the full economic repercussions of the power pinch are as yet unknown, the Shukan Shincho article quotes economist Takaaki Mihashi as saying that higher outlays for power are likely to siphon off money that householders would otherwise spend on leisure and other nonessential items. This in turn could lead to a glut of unsold consumer goods that will exacerbate the deflationary spiral.

While not directly related to the supply of electricity, another ominous development may affect availability of a popular dish on which people depend to make it through the dog days of summer.

This year, the price for unagi (eels), a nutritious dish traditionally consumed to help people survive summer heat, is threatening to go through the roof. Online newspaper J-cast news (May 13) reported that low-budget restaurant chains favored by salarymen, such as Yoshinoya and Sukiya, have been forced to drop eel dishes from their summer menus. If you can afford to splurge, doyo ushi no hi — the customary day for consuming eel — will be July 27.