Nuclear power once accounted for about 30 percent of Japan’s power supply. On March 26, Tokyo Electric Power Co. shut down the last of its 17 reactors — the No. 6 unit at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture — for regular inspection and maintenance. Now, of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors, only Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s Tomari No. 3 reactor remains in operation, and it is scheduled to be shut down on May 5 also for regular inspection and maintenance.

The upcoming summer promises to be a challenging time for both the Japanese people and the power industry because of the possibility of power shortages. It will be all the more important for people and businesses to make serious efforts to conserve energy.

The public must also remain vigilant and not allow the government to use the specter of power shortages as a pretext to push for a restart of the nation’s nuclear reactors before it completes its investigation of the catastrophic Fukushima nuclear accident and establishes new safety standards based on those findings for nuclear power plants.

According to Tepco’s November forecast, even with all its reactors offline, it will be able to supply 57.06 gigawatts of electricity in the coming summer — less than the peak demand of 60 gigawatts in the extremely hot summer of 2010 but much more than the peak demand of 49.22 gigawatts last summer. The government fears that if the 2012 summer is similar to 2010, total power supply across the nation may fall 10 percent short of peak demand, and that in areas serviced by Tepco, the supply may be 3 gigawatts short of peak demand.

To secure sufficient power supplies and prevent a worst-case scenario — a blackout — the government may maneuver to restart some of the idle reactors that have passed stress tests. But it must not forget that a stress test — a computer simulation to measure each reactor’s safety margin to avert severe accidents — does not guarantee that a reactor would safely survive an actual disaster.

Given the public’s strong opposition to the continued use of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government should set as soon as possible a timetable for phasing out nuclear power and begin making earnest preparations to replace it with alternative sources of energy.

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