Accessibility links

Breaking News

Japan May Face Power Shortage, with Most Nuclear Plants Off Line - 2003-05-12

Newspaper headlines in Japan are warning that if it gets really hot this summer, Tokyo could find itself in the dark. That is because Tokyo's biggest electricity company has lost much of its power generating capability after taking all nuclear plants out of service.

Tens of millions of people in Tokyo could find themselves having the most miserable summer since 1987. That was the last time Tokyo Electric Power failed to meet the needs of its customers.

On a July day 16 years ago, temperatures rose sharply, causing demand to surge for electricity for air conditioners. Tokyo Electric, known as TEPCO, could not provide power for several hours for nearly three million businesses and homes.

The utility is warning the same thing could happen again if its nuclear power plants remain out of service.

Last month, Tokyo Electric switched off all its nuclear plants, saying it needed to perform safety checks. The move follows scandals showing the company had falsified reports and covered-up defects at its plants.

Only one of the 17 reactors, in Niigata prefecture, is back in service, and it was not a popular move.

The governor of Niigata prefecture, Ikuo Hirayama, said despite public objection, he had no choice. Mr. Hirayama said residents are still concerned about the power company's scandals, but inspections did not find any problems. So he said he cannot rule out nuclear power because safety is not an issue.

An expert at the Asia Pacific Energy Research Center, Jeffrey Skeer, said TEPCO needs more than 60 million kilowatts to meet peak demand on hot days. And without the nuclear plants, this will be difficult.

"Nuclear power makes up about 30 percent of the generating capacity in the TEPCO area. Clearly that gap needs to be made up. ... Some of it can be made up by restarting old units, ... but it is a serious situation," Mr. Skeer said.

Tokyo Electric said it is trying hard to generate enough power before the heat sets in and is looking at ways to do this in addition to restarting as many nuclear reactors as possible.

Some anti-nuclear activists contend Tokyo Electric has inflated its forecasts to pressure government officials to restart the reactors.

But utility analyst Toshinori Ito at UBS Warburg does not believe the power company is playing such games. "I do not think so. ... Managers of Tokyo Electric Power ... all ... said to me Tokyo Power would restart their nuclear power plants as soon as possible," Mr. Ito said.

Political pressure, including calls to take nuclear energy out of the hands of private utilities, is the latest problem for Tokyo Electric. But most politicians view resource-poor Japan as having few realistic alternatives to nuclear power.

And Tokyo Electric said it is trying to do better, saying the scandals have shocked it out of complacency. Many executives have resigned, including the chairman and president, in an attempt to regain public trust.

Ironically, the talk about blackouts and investigations is not squelching the share price of Tokyo Electric, the world's largest stock-exchange listed utility. Mr. Ito at UBS Warburg said the utility is outperforming the key Japanese stock market indexes. "Most ... investors believed that TEPCO will clear their problems. Almost all nuclear power units will re-start after July. TEPCO's share price will recover," Mr. Ito said.

Another reason the government wants to stay with nuclear power is the Kyoto accord that promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Jeffrey Skeer at the Asia Pacific Energy Research Center explains.

"Without nuclear power, Japan would be using a lot more gas, oil and coal ... The major source of electricity generation ... other than nuclear power is natural gas ... but it costs more than running a nuclear plant and it generates significant carbon dioxide emissions," Mr. Skeer said.

Japan has pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses by six percent from 1990 levels within the next decade. Tokyo Electric has plans to build more than a dozen new reactors during the next 10 years. By then, Japan will be dependent on nuclear power for 40 percent of its electricity.