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Restart nuclear reactors steadily to ensure stable power supplies
Publication Date : 18-09-2013
The No. 4 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant has been suspended for regular safety checkups. The reactor had been the only one in operation.
This is the first time in about 14 months that the operations of all 50 nuclear reactors in Japan have been suspended.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co., Kyushu Electric Power Co. and KEPCO have filed applications with the Nuclear Regulation Authority to restart 12 reactors. But safety checkups make the prospects for restarting these reactors uncertain.
Of particular concern is what will happen if Japan experiences a severe winter, when demand for power will rise due to the need for heating and other factors, and there are no nuclear reactors to rely on. The NRA should proceed with safety inspections without delay.
To restart the reactors smoothly after their safety has been confirmed, it will be necessary to win the understanding of local municipalities where the power plants are located. The central government must provide detailed explanations to local governments and residents concerned about the safety and necessity of nuclear power stations.
Despite a record-breaking heat wave this summer, such problems as a massive power outage were avoided. This can be attributed to the power-saving efforts of businesses and households as well as the strenuous efforts of utilities to supply power.
However, the utilities walked a tightrope in meeting power demand. On August 22, Kepco was forced to make up for the shortfall of power supplies, caused by a sharp rise in demand due to soaring temperatures in its service area and trouble at its thermal power plant, by receiving surplus power from other utilities as an emergency measure.
Kepco's excess supply capacity on this day dropped temporarily to 4 per cent, only one percentage point above the 3 per cent regarded as the threshold for causing a blackout.
It is far too optimistic to believe that adequate power supplies can be secured without the help of nuclear reactors, merely because there were no blackouts in summer.
Thermal power costly
All available thermal power plants have been mobilised to make up for the power shortfall caused by the suspension of nuclear reactors. As a result, thermal power generation now provides 90 per cent of the total power supply, up sharply from about 60 per cent recorded before Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 2011.
The proportion of power generated by imported fuels, including liquefied natural gas, exceeded 74 per cent of total power output, equalling the record set during the first oil shock in 1973. This is a worrisome factor in terms of ensuring energy security.
The impact on the national economy is also serious. The additional cost for fuel imports amounted to about 4 trillion yen (US$40.32 billion), resulting in a continued exodus of a huge amount of national wealth.
Given the increased reliance on relatively expensive thermal power generation, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and five other utilities have raised rates for households by 6 per cent to 10 per cent.
But consumers were forced to bear additional financial burdens as portions of the increased fuel costs were automatically added to the rates.
For example, Tepco raised the rate by about 8.5 per cent, but the monthly bill paid by the standard family went up by about 30 per cent compared with the outset of the crisis at the utility’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.
The margin of utility hike rates for businesses was larger than that for households. Unless reliance on thermal power generation is reduced, midsize and small companies in financial difficulties will find it hard to survive, and the hollowing out of industry may accelerate.
It is essential to establish a stable system that can provide power cheaply. The government should clearly come up with a policy stating that nuclear power generation would continue to be a principal power source.