Japan Faces a Summer Without Nuclear EnergyPolitics Economy Society
Stricter Standards Prolong Completion of Safety Checks
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, then Prime Minister Kan Naoto ordered stress tests to be conducted at the other 17 of Japan’s 18 commercial nuclear facilities to verify the safety of the country’s remaining 48 reactors. (Japan has 54 reactors in all, counting the 6 at Fukushima Daiichi.) Following the period from May 5 to July 1, 2012, when all reactors were offline, some were restarted, but only on a temporary basis. Since September 2013, all of Japan’s nuclear generating capacity has been sitting idle.
Early in the inspection process Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority estimated that safety checks would require around a half-year to complete. However, new, stricter regulations, such as those to bolster reactors against earthquakes and tsunamis, have slowed progress. In fact, one of the few developments of any significance has been the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors—the four reactors directly involved in the disaster were decommissioned in April 2012, followed by the remaining two in January 2014.
Another Summer Power-Saving Campaign
As summer heats up in earnest, the Japan Meteorological Agency has forecast this year to be as hot as or hotter than last year. Energy consumption during the hottest months of the season is also expected to be higher than average, straining the ability of utilities to keep up with demand. The government has again announced a summer power-saving campaign in an attempt to reduce demand during peak hours, though no precise targets have been set. Instead, consumers will be asked to set air conditioners at 28 degrees Celsius and take other measures to reduce electricity consumption during the setsuden kikan, or energy-saving period, which runs from July 1 to September 30.
According to estimates released by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the supply margin for this summer, or the difference between highest potentials for both supply and demand, is 4.6% nationally, excluding Okinawa Prefecture. Even with no reactors online, this is only a 1.6-point drop compared to the previous summer, with the margin expected to remain above the lowest desired boundary of 3%.
Looking at utilities by region paints a different picture, however. Kansai Electric and Kyūshū Electric, located in western and southern Japan, respectively, are more reliant on nuclear energy, and as no reactors are yet scheduled to come online, supply margins in the two regions could possibly dip as low as 1%–2%. As a preventive measure, utilities at risk for shortfalls during peak hours can obtain electricity from another utility to ensure that power supply keeps pace with demand.
Heavy Reliance on Thermal Power
Prior to their shutdown, nuclear reactors supplied 20%–25% of Japan’s electricity, a gap that in the absence of atomic energy is being covered by thermal power plants—which create energy by burning fuel to heat steam and turn turbines. This means that 80% of national electricity generation now relies on coal, liquefied natural gas, and other fossil fuels. Around a fifth of Japan’s thermal plants have been in service for more than 40 years and are at risk of breakdown. As temperatures climb and power demand grows, a malfunction or other incident could result in blackouts. Another issue is that the fuels used to run thermal plants are expensive to import—these have been a main factor swelling Japan’s trade deficit since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster—while added costs have the potential of driving up rates.
In generating power, there are a wide variety of energy sources to choose from in addition to nuclear, like petroleum, LNG, and other fossil fuels, as well as renewables like hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, and solar. Japan must decide which of these sources constitute the best mix over the medium to long term.
Japan Committed to Nuclear for Base Load
In April 2014, the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō decided on a new basic energy policy that reversed that of the previous administration, which looked to wean the country off nuclear power by the 2030s, and firmly positioned atomic energy as a base load source. The administration has cited the need to secure reliable sources of power as its reason for deciding to restart the country’s idled reactors. Abe has indicated, though, the desire to keep the nation’s reliance on nuclear energy to the necessary minimum through such measures as promoting new and renewable energies, as well as increasing the efficiency of thermal plants.
Opinions are divided on nuclear energy, however, with some saying that reactors should stay shut down and Japan remain nuclear-free. Two prominent proponents of this argument have been Hosokawa Morihiro and Koizumi Jun’ichirō. The two former prime ministers formed the organization Japan Assembly for Nuclear Free Renewable Energy in May 2014. (Hosokawa earlier mounted an unsuccessful bid to become governor of Tokyo running on an antinuclear platform.) The antinuke movement continues to gain momentum, with notable celebrities and cultural icons, such as musician Sakamoto Ryūichi and actor-turned-politician Yamamoto Tarō, joining the movement to rid Japan of nuclear energy.
(Banner image: People walk through Tokyo’s Ginza district during the height of summer. © Jiji Press Photo.)