The End of an Era? Final Japanese Nuclear Power Plant to Shut Down Sunday

Damage at Fukushima Daiichi as seen on March 18, 2011. (photo: DigitalGlobe)

Before the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011, about a third of the country’s electricity was supplied by the 54 nuclear power plants scattered throughout the country. In the intervening time, those nuclear reactors not directly damaged on March 11 have been shutting down for inspections and public opposition is preventing their re-start. The final plant remaining online, the number 3 reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido, will be powered down late Saturday night into Sunday morning.

The Washington Post describes the political process by which the plants have been shut down:

The break from nuclear power is less a matter of policy than political paralysis. Japan’s central government has recommitted to nuclear power in the wake of last year’s triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, but those authorities haven’t yet convinced host communities and provincial governors that nuclear power is necessary — or that a tarnished and yet-unreformed regulatory agency is up to the job of ensuring safety.

Because Japan depends on local consensus for its nuclear decisions, those maintenance checkups — mandated every 13 months — have turned into indefinite shutdowns, and resource-poor Japan has scrambled to import costlier fossil fuels to fill the energy void.

Before the Fukushima accident, Japan operated 54 commercial reactors, which accounted for about one-third of the country’s energy supply. But in the last year, 17 of those reactors were either damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami or shut down because of government request. Thirty-six others were shuttered after inspections and have not been restarted.

The New York Times has more on the political standoff:

The showdown between local and national leaders has played out in recent weeks at a plant in Ohi, near Osaka, which the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has set up as a crucial test case of Japan’s nuclear future. Two reactors at the idled plant were the first to pass simulated stress tests meant to show that most reactors, unlike those at the Fukushima plant devastated in last year’s earthquake and tsunami, could withstand similar disasters. The administration trusted that Ohi’s reactors would be back in operation by now, or at least would receive local approval to start up soon.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best liked politician, according to recent polls.

He has won widespread public support by giving voice to deep-seated public suspicions that the Tokyo government is rushing to promote the interests of the powerful nuclear industry at the expense of public safety — a situation that many Japanese now blame for leaving the Fukushima Daiichi plant so vulnerable in the first place.

Reuters explains that if Japan makes it through the upcoming summer without major power outages while the nuclear plants remain offline, it may well be the end of the nuclear power era in Japan:

The shutdown leaves Japan without nuclear power for the first time since 1970 and has put electricity producers on the defensive. Public opposition to nuclear power could become more deeply entrenched if non-nuclear generation proves enough to meet Japan’s needs in the peak-demand summer months.

“Can it be the end of nuclear power? It could be,” said Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo who studies energy policy. “That’s one reason why people are fighting it to the death.”

Japan managed to get through the summer last year without any blackouts by imposing curbs on use in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. Factories operated at night and during weekends to avoid putting too much stress on the country’s power grids. A similar success this year would weaken the argument of proponents of nuclear power.

“They don’t have the polls on their side,” said DeWit. “Once they go through the summer without reactors, how will they fire them up? They know that, so they will try their darndest but I don’t see how.”

The Guardian points out both the economic and potential environmental costs of the plants remaining offline:

Over the past 14 months, dozens of nuclear reactors not directly affected by the tsunami have gone offline to undergo regular maintenance and safety checks, while utilities have turned to coal, oil and gas-fired power plants to keep industry and households supplied with electricity – imports that contribute to Japan’s first trade deficit for more than 30 years last year.

Japan, already the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas, bought record amounts of LNG last year to replace nuclear. The international energy agency estimates the closure of all nuclear plants will increase Japanese demand for oil to 4.5m barrels a day, at an additional cost of about US$100m a day.

/snip/

Critics of the nuclear shutdown have also highlighted the impact more fossil fuel power generation will have on Japan’s climate change commitments. Even big investors in renewables, such as the Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son, concede it will take time for them to have any real impact on the country’s energy mix.

They will be buoyed by a new environment ministry panel’s assertion that Japan can still reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030 from 1990 levels without nuclear, through energy saving and the quicker adoption of renewables, which it hopes will account for between 25% and 35% of total power generation by 2030.

Will Japan be able to avoid large blackouts when summer demand reaches it peak? If so, look for the nuclear advocates to fail in their attempts to bring the power plants back online. However, if power generation falls so far short of demand that citizens are left without air conditioning and businesses have to cut back on production of goods (and presumably lay off workers) nuclear power advocates feel they will have a stronger argument to make for bringing the nuclear plants back online. Surely, none of the players involved would game the system to get the outcome they want. After all, the US showed, with Enron, that electricity markets are pure free markets incapable of being manipulated.

I don’t know how much excess capacity the system in Japan had before the earthquake, but my understanding of the electricity grid in the US is that it operates very close to the edge, so loss of a third of generating capacity in a year would be expected to be catastrophic. Unless the Japanese situation is dramatically different from the one here, that would mean that massive outages in Japan this summer likely would be due to actual shortfalls in capacity. Nevertheless, I want the warning about gaming the system to be out for consideration if outages hit.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
9 replies
  1. bsbafflesbrains says:

    Humans in industrialized countries like Japan can live very good lives with much lower power consumption. Japan will adapt to the change; the real problem is being mostly hidden by the MSM and that is the very real chance that Fukushima will suffer recriticality in the near future. The plan to achieve “cold shutdown” relies on the hope that Japan will not have another great earthquake in the next several years. History of the region makes that very unlikely so stay tuned because the disaster at Fukushima may just be starting.

  2. Arbusto says:

    The Japanese and Europeans want Nuclear power to go away. Thank god for the USofA where GE, Hitachi and Babcock & Wilcox can buy our Government for their own profits.

  3. bsbafflesbrains says:

    @Arbusto: The fallout from Fukushima; just like Chernobyl did for the rest of Europe, will come to the U.S. and change many minds. The world is actually a small space when dealing with nuclear fission. If Fukushima reaches recriticality the fallout will be much worse. It’s a time bomb waiting for the next big quake that results in current cooling operations to fail.

  4. gmoke says:

    Since Fukushima, Japanese consumption of electricity has fallen by about 10%, primarily due to energy conservation. The gains from real energy efficiency measures are still to be realized. However, having listened to some Japanese officials talk about post-Fukushima energy policy, I have the distinct impression that Japanese officialdom does not understand the systemic gains possible from real efforts on energy efficiency.

    On the other hand, reportedly, the Japanese have been rushing to purchase renewable energy products.

    Lastly, the spent fuel storage facility on Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 4 needs to be removed or replaced as soon as possible. It is a disaster waiting to happen according to what I’ve read and has zero, zero capability of standing up to even the smallest earthquake. Double plus ungood.

  5. quixote says:

    Good heavens. Keeping rooms five or ten degrees warmer in summer is a disaster. It’s definitely worth having thousands of years of waste to take care of to avoid that. /snark. The Japanese people seem to have more sense, even if their government doesn’t.

    Tangentially, about the US being at the edge regarding generating capacity. Could be. I’m not an energy expert. But I live on the CA coast, within a fifteen minute drive of two natural gas energy plants, each about 1GW. One of them runs maybe, maybe!, three days a year during the worst heatwaves of summer. The other one runs more often than that, but if it runs a total of two months out of twelve, that’s the most it does.

    I realize that’s a very small sample size, and I realize that natural gas plants are the best adapted energy source to peak loads because they can be started up and shut down with the least effort. But still. Unless the situation here is unique, maybe an independent assessment of how close we are to the edge is indicated.

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