JAPAN | All reactors off by spring — a once unthinkable scenario

Posted on July 19, 2011


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All reactors off by spring — a once unthinkable scenario

Staff writer

As the crisis continues at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and thousands of people remain evacuated due to radiation fears, public sentiment has turned against allowing reactors idled for regular checks at power stations nationwide to be restarted.

To ease public safety concerns, the government has ordered stress tests be carried out on all reactors.

And with Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s remarks last week that Japan should become a society that doesn’t rely on nuclear energy, the overall sentiment against atomic power is gaining traction.

But if this is a goal, no timetable has been established for achieving it. The clock, however, is ticking on the 54 reactors nationwide, as their inspection shutdown dates approach.

Concerns are rising over what would happen if reactors are offline for an extended period, and if there are other energy sources that can cover the loss.

Following are questions and answers about the nation’s nuclear power program and how people’s lives would be affected if all reactors are halted:

What is the current operational status of the nation’s reactors?

Among the 54 commercial reactors run by 10 utilities, only 18 were running as of Monday.

Thirty-six have been halted for required regular checks and other reasons, and two operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. are scheduled to go offline Thursday and Friday. Another three are scheduled to shut down by the end of August.

Under the Electricity Business Law, it is mandatory for reactors to be shut down temporarily every 13 months for regular inspections.

So if reactors currently offline for checks aren’t restarted due to opposition from local governments and the public they represent, all 54 could be idle by next spring.

What’s the usual procedure for regular checks?

A reactor inspection usually takes about three months, during which utilities change fuel and other components if necessary, according to the website of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

After completing the inspection, the reactor undergoes a test run for about a month.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the government’s nuclear watchdog, then conducts a final assessment before giving the green light for resumption.

The official procedure ends there. But utilities have reached tacit agreements to get the nod from the local governments hosting nuclear plants before they resume commercial operations, even though by law such OKs are not necessary.

And those local governments, representing an ever-fearful public, are increasingly disinclined to give the go-ahead for restarting reactors, delaying their resumption.

Apparently to avoid this scenario, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. have been test-operating a reactor each for more than four months and the energy produced has been used commercially. Of the two, Kepco’s Oi plant halted operations Saturday due to cooling system trouble.

The utilities refrained from submitting requests to NISA to ask for the final approval. However, after instructions from the industry ministry, which oversees the power industry, Hokkaido Electric reportedly will submit those requests soon. The resumption of the Oi plant is expected to take longer since Kepco will need to identify the problem.

In addition, the government announced July 11 that all reactors must undergo stress tests to ensure their safety before they can be restarted. This will pose further delays.

How much of the nation’s electricity is supplied by nuclear power?

About 30 percent.

In 2009, 61.7 percent came from thermal power, 29.2 percent from atomic power and 8.1 percent was hydro power, according to the government’s Energy White Paper. Renewable natural energy sources such as solar power and wind, which Kan wants to promote, accounted for only 1.1 percent.

Nuclear energy dependency differs with each utility and is higher in western Japan.

In 2009, nuclear power accounted for 45 percent of the juice Kepco provided, 42 percent of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s output and 41 percent of Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s, according to the FEPC report. Meanwhile, Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power dependency stood at 21 percent and Tepco at 28 percent the same year.

What happens if the reactors aren’t restarted?

The industry ministry has estimated that idled reactors may cause a power deficit ranging from 4 to 20 percent at five electric utilities — Tohoku, Kansai, Hokuriku, Shikoku and Kyushu — between around December and February.

The utilities plan to cover the loss by increasing thermal power plant output, including reactivating those not in use.

The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, a quasi-government think tank, estimated that the increase in use of thermal power would push up the nation’s annual fuel costs over ¥3 trillion in total.

“The hardest time would be this winter,” said Naoki Sugiyama, a senior researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute. “In winter, peak demand declines only about 10 to 15 percent compared with the summer. While more reactors will be shut down and some thermal power plants may also undergo regular inspections, I would say electricity supply will be severe this winter.”

Unlike summer, peak winter demand comes in the evenings and early mornings, because people turn on the heat, Sugiyama said.

“If a blackout occurs, in the worst scenario, some may freeze to death. To avoid this risk, I think we will be asked to cut even more electricity (in the winter),” he said.

So what will happen if all reactors are offline by spring?

Opinions vary.

While some experts say the country has no problem supplying enough electricity without nuclear plants, others say more energy cuts will be required to avoid blackouts while the economy and households face rate hikes.

The IEE think tank estimated that if all the reactors are offline next summer, the electricity shortage would necessitate a 12.4 percent power cut.

If industries continue to be required to cut electricity, some may relocate operations overseas, where electricity is in stable supply.

Sugiyama agrees that next summer will also be harsh because it is still unclear if thermal power plants can supply enough stable electricity if some are idled for inspections.

But he said such difficulty would probably only last two or three years, after which time thermal power plants and other sources would be able to supply enough electricity.

The increased use of thermal plants, however, will result in higher electricity and fuel import costs, negatively affecting the trade surplus, Sugiyama said.

A regular household’s electricity bill will increase by ¥1,049 per month on average due to rise in fuel costs, IEE said.

Meanwhile, Hiroaki Koide, a renowned antinuclear scholar at Kyoto University, said in his book titled “Genpatsu no Uso” (“Lies of Nuclear Power”) that existing thermal power plants can cover any power shortfall from shutting down all the reactors.

In his book, he says only 48 percent of the nation’s thermal power plants were in operation in 2005, while about 70 percent of nuclear plants were operating.

Koide also recommends making greater efforts to exploit alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power to prepare for a future when oil will not be an option.

What’s the downside of increasing the use of thermal power?

Compared with atomic power, thermal plants emit more carbon dioxide. It would be virtually impossible to reach the Kyoto Protocol targets of reducing 2020 carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent of 1990 levels, said Sugiyama of Mitsubishi Research.

He also said it would increase the risk of fuel procurement, because Japan needs to constantly import oil, coal and other fuels.

“Coal and liquefied natural gas are relatively cheap, but in the case of oil, it is getting expensive,” Sugiyama explained.

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