5 Mai 2012
May 5, 2012
TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's last operating commercial nuclear reactor is set to go offline Saturday night for mandatory routine maintenance, leaving the nation without atomic-generated electricity for the first time in 42 years.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co. is scheduled to have the No. 3 unit of its Tomari nuclear power plant in the northern Japan prefecture reduce its output power gradually from around 5 p.m. and end electricity generation at around 11 p.m.
Since the huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis, resulting in radiation leaks, mass evacuation and heightened public concern over nuclear safety, no Japanese reactors that were halted for scheduled checkups have been restarted.
The government is trying to restart two offline reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture to cope with an expected rise in the electricity use over the coming summer in western Japan. But it is still struggling to persuade a wary public that it is safe to restart them in the wake of the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
The last time that all of Japan's commercial reactors went offline was the period between April 30 and May 4, 1970, just four years after commercial nuclear power generation began in Japan. At that time, Japan had only two nuclear reactors -- one at Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture and the other at its Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture.
Currently, Japan has a total of 50 commercial reactors, down from 54 now that the Nos. 1 to 4 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have been declared defunct following the disaster.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key ministers of his Cabinet judged last month that restarting the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi plant on the Sea of Japan coast is necessary to help ensure a stable supply of electricity during summer's high temperatures.
Industry minister Yukio Edano, who oversees nuclear power plant operators, has said the possibility of introducing rolling blackouts cannot be ruled out if there is no atomic power available.
Prior to the Fukushima crisis, nuclear power provided about one third of Japan's electricity. The government, together with electricity firms, used to promote the development of nuclear power, touting its efficiency and arguing that nuclear power plants can contribute to preventing global warming as they do not emit carbon dioxide during electricity generation.
The government is now crafting a new energy mix in light of the Fukushima crisis, terminating its earlier plan to boost the country's reliance on nuclear energy to more than 50 percent of total power supply by fiscal 2030.
In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, the government instructed emergency safety measures to be implemented at all the country's reactors.
In addition, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan in May last year asked Chubu Electric Power Co. to suspend operation of its Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture due to concern about a powerful earthquake predicted for the area. In July, Kan's administration also introduced ''stress tests'' to check reactors' ability to withstand earthquakes and tsunami.
Under the stress-test system, reactors undergoing scheduled checkups cannot be restarted unless they pass the first round of stress tests. Test results on the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors of the Oi plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. have been endorsed by Japan's nuclear authorities, making them at the forefront of the government's efforts to restart offline reactors
But efforts to regain public support for restarting the Oi reactors appear to have made little headway. Leaders of local governments near the Oi plant, such as the governors of Kyoto and Shiga as well as the mayor of Osaka, have been voicing concern over restarting the reactors.
A recent poll conducted by Kyodo News also showed that 59.5 percent of respondents are opposed to restarting the Oi reactors, while 26.7 percent are in favor.
Meanwhile, the utilities powering the world's third biggest economy have been forced to turn to thermal power generation to keep factories, offices and households supplied with electricity. Buying oil and liquid natural gas is driving up the utilities' fuel costs and may lead to higher electricity bills.
The prolonged and widespread halt of reactor operations has also cast a shadow over the local economies in communities hosting nuclear power plants.
It is still uncertain how long Japan will continue keeping its commercial reactors offline. Noda and three ministers concerned are to make a formal decision on whether to restart the Oi reactors after taking into account the opinions of local authorities and of the public.