Japan's Power Crunch

Dreaded summer has arrived in a Japan whose power grid is still crippled by the devastating March 11 earthquake. Temperatures reached 30 degrees centigrade in Tokyo in the middle of last week and even higher in other parts of Japan. Demand for electric power is soaring to power air conditioners, which is a bad sign for Japan’s severely taxed electric power companies.

It was immediately apparent in the weeks immediately following the earthquake that things would be touch and go in Tokyo and environs, not to mention in the devastated northeast coast, in the peak demand months from July-September due to the multiple nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima power station.

Potential power shortages have spread throughout the country, to regions as far away as southern Kyushu that only remotely felt the impact of the nuclear disaster. The Kansai Electric Power Co.(KEPCO), which provides power to the major industrial cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe has asked users to cut consumption by 15 percent this summer to avert blackouts.

The Hokuriku Electric Power Co., which services the area around the Sea of Japan in western Japan has pleaded for conservation. With both of its nuclear power plants out of service, its power supply reserve capacity is only 4.8 percent above peak July demand and 1.9 for August against the normal 8 percent reserve usually considered necessary for a stable supply.

Japan’s nuclear power industry is gradually shutting down. It isn’t a result of a national referendum, as in Italy, it isn’t because of government decision to phase out nuclear energy as in Germany. It is because local authorities are balking at allowing plants in their neighborhood, plants that had been out of service for scheduled inspections, refueling or replacements of defective parts, to resume operation.

When the earthquake struck and kicked off the crisis at the four Fukushima Daiichi plant, about a dozen Japanese nuclear reactors were down for various reasons. It is anticipated that about five more will suspend normal operations through the summer. As of July 1 only 19 of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants were producing power; by August this may fall to 14 and by this time next year all plants could theoretically be out.

Nuclear power provides about 30 percent of Japan’s electric power consumption. Many businessman and government officials worry that the shortages could do more than cause discomfort in the summer heat. The closures could contribute to a further “hollowing out” of Japan’s industry and push the country back into recession.

The mayors of the townships where the plants are located and prefectural governors have a critical say in the operation of plants in their bailiwicks. They must approve restarting of any nuclear plant even after routine outages. The okay from national regulators alone is not enough. In the new post-Fukushima climate the authorities are balking at permitting any reactor to return to operation.

The national government headed by Prime Minister Naoto Kan has sent mixed signals. After the accident he spoke vaguely of redirecting Japan’s energy policy towards renewable energy sources. In early May he also pressured the Chubu Electric Power Co. to shutdown its three Hamaoka plants, not because of any specific defects but on the theoretical notion that a major earthquake could hit nearby Suruga Bay.

On the other hand, Kan has appealed to local authorities to permit suspended plants to restart. His minister for trade and industry Banri Kaieda, has become almost frantic in his repeated calls to local authorities to permit the suspended plants to resume normal operations.

In May Kaieda argued that temporary safety measures, such as moving backup diesel generators to high ground, would permit reactors to restart. That fell on deaf ears. In mid-June he asserted that some of suggestions from an international inspection group were enough to resume operations at suspended plants. That too fell on deaf ears.

It is a hard sell in the current climate of fear. A recent poll by the Nikkei newspaper, Japan’s leading financial journal, found that nearly 70 percent of Japanese are currently opposed to restarting the reactors that are currently closed. Some 21 percent favors immediately closing all of the plants. Meanwhile, Japan enters the critical summer months.

Train stations in Tokyo display monitors that show the percentage of the local utility, Tepco’s total generating capacity that is being used on an hour-by-hour basis. On June 24, when the capital experienced its first really hot day of the season, the monitors showed about that about 92percent of the capacity was being utilized.

Not everyone is convinced. Some experts have argued that the utilities are manipulating the figures to allow suspended reactors to resume operation. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto openly challenged the assessments of the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) when that power company called for a 15 percent cut in regional power consumption. The governor called the request “groundless” and asked why the relevant data on which it was based was not released to his administration.

In some ways Tokyo may be in a better position than many in western Japan, as the power crunch was felt to be more immediate. Within a week after the earthquake hit, the local utility was talking in terms of rolling blackouts. From early days escalators and elevators have been shutdown and hallway lights dimmed throughout the capital region to save energy.

The utility lifted the immediate threat of rolling blackouts and instead has concentrated on urging local industries, and stores to reduce demand this summer by 15 percent. Tepco says it expects to have 55.2 million kilowatt hours of capacity by the end of July with anticipated demand, even with conservation measures, of 55 million. That doesn’t leave much of a margin for error.