A shortage of electricity would be the greatest obstacle to economic recovery in Japan following the huge earthquake and tsunami in March, according to the country's industry minister. He said that this makes local permission for restarting Japan's nuclear power plants essential.
In May, Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan said that the country's energy policy would have to be reconsidered following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. However, at that time, he stated that nuclear would remain a 'pillar' in Japan's energy supply.
Banri Kaieda, minister for economy, trade and industry, has now said that for nuclear to remain one of Japan's key energy sources, "It is indispensible to obtain lessons we should learn from the accident in order to present a general image of nuclear safety measures and to put such measures into practice." He added that it is also important to "clarify the actual situation of the accident" at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco's) Fukushima Daiichi plant.
According to data released by the Japan Atomic Industry Forum (JAIF), as of mid-May just 17 out of Japan's 54 nuclear power reactors were in operation. This represents 15,493 MWe, or 31.6%, of the country's total nuclear generating capacity of 48,960 MWe. Twenty units, with a combined generating capacity of 17,705 MWe (or 36.2% of total nuclear capacity) were not operating as they had been shut for periodic inspection, while another two units had been shut for unplanned inspections or equipment replacement. It is not yet known when these units will be restarted.
Kaieda warned, "Concerns about electricity supply and cost increase caused by the substitution of thermal power generation would possibly restrict investment in Japan and prompt transfer of business to overseas countries, which may result in a hollowing out of Japanese industry."
Power supplies in the eastern coast areas served by Tepco, Tohoku Electric Power Co and Chubu Electric Power Co have been severely disrupted by the earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, the shutdown of reactors for regulatory-mandated periodic inspections has also led to tight supplies in western Japan.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) warned that if those reactors currently shut down for inspections or maintenance are not restarted, and those currently operating are shut down when scheduled inspections are due, all of Japan's nuclear power plants would be offline within about one year.
METI noted that if those reactors currently not in operation in western Japan are not permitted to restart by local authorities, the supply capacity in that region during the coming summer months will decrease by 8.8 GWe, or about 11% of expected supply capacity. This would not only affect supplies on the western coast of Japan, but also make it difficult to implement plans to transmit electricity to the eastern coast. In addition, some businesses in the east of the country have relocated to the west, adding to expected demand there.
"If power stations currently in periodic inspection outage cannot be restarted, electricity would not only have to be supplied by the five companies in the western regions to the Tepco area and Chubu Electric Power area, but it would be unavoidable that the supply-demand balance of electricity would be tight even in western Japan," Kaieda said. "Considering the tendency to shift production plants, etc, to western Japan, it is indispensible to stabilize the supply-demand balance of electricity including western Japan for recovery from the disaster and revitalization of the Japanese economy."
METI instructed utilities on 30 March to take emergency safety measures for an assumed loss of all AC power supplies, etc, caused by a tsunami. Kaieda noted, "METI confirmed that the level of safety required for preventing the occurrence of core damage, etc, has been secured by steady implementation of such measures." He added, "METI considers that there is no problem regarding safety concerning the continued operation and restart of nuclear power stations."
On 7 June, Kaieda ordered utilities to take further immediate measures that would be implemented in the event of a serious accident at a nuclear power plant. These included steps to prevent hydrogen explosions. The plant operators submitted reports to METI on 14 June listing such measures they had taken. Kaieda said, "On the basis of the reports, METI strictly evaluated nuclear power stations through on-the-spot inspections, etc, and confirmed that the measures were taken properly."
"I would like residents near the nuclear power stations and other people in Japan to understand that electricity restraint is the largest issue for the growth of Japan's economy," Kaieda said. "For future development of the Japanese economy, I would like the people to allow the restart of nuclear power stations. If necessary, I will visit the regions where nuclear power stations are located and will directly explain the situation and ask for restart of these facilities."
World of Nuclear