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All Nuke Reactors Shut Down [ 2012.11.08 ]

[NewsJapan.net] All Nuke Reactors Shut Down; Can Operation be Resumed by Summer?

On May 5, the No. 3 reactor at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant was shut down for regular inspection, leaving all 50* nuclear reactors in Japan offline. This has never happened since nuclear power became a key energy source for the country. The government intends to resume the operation of the nuclear power stations, if the safety and necessity are confirmed, but Japanese public opinion is greatly divided between the pros and cons. With a power demand surge in the summer ahead, people are watching closely how the situation will play out.
* Japan's commercial nuclear reactor count officially dropped to 50, as the No. 1-4 reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant were officially decommissioned on April 19.

According to the Electricity Business Law, every nuclear reactor in Japan should be stopped for a routine check every 13 months. The reactors are usually started up again soon after their safety has been confirmed in the inspection, but things have turned around after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Plant. As nuclear plants went offline for routine maintenance one after another, the government effectively put a freeze on restarting them, and decided in July 2011 to require the power companies to conduct comprehensive safety assessment (stress tests) as a precondition for the reactors to go back online. Following the instruction, the utilities submitted the results of the initial stress tests to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Designated processes including evaluation by NISA are still under way and no reactor has resumed operation so far.

In such a situation, the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant of the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) have been seen as the closest to operation resumption across the country. The results of the initial tests submitted by KEPCO were approved by NISA in February this year, followed by the Nuclear Safety Commission the following month. Under these circumstances, in the middle of April, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Economy, Industry and Trade Minister Yukio Edano, and two other ministers finally confirmed that the two reactors at the Oi plant meet the government’s new safety standards, and concluded it “appropriate” to resume their operations. Behind the Administration’s decision were the safety measures KEPCO has taken, and also the concerns over possible severe power shortages in its service areas during a nuclear-free hot summer, even if people make power-saving efforts.

Still, the outlook for the resumption of reactor operations at the Oi Plant remains murky. The government has been stressing that “local residents' understanding and approval” are preconditions for getting nuclear plants back online, and METI Minister Edano has already visited local leaders including Mr. Issei Nishikawa, Governor of Fukui Prefecture, where the Oi Plant is located, asking for their understanding. Some local governments in the Kansai Region, however, including neighboring Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures and the city of Osaka, the largest shareholder of KEPCO, are still against resuming reactor operations.

Will Japan, which had relied on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity, enter summer with zero nuclear reactors operating? While the question remains the focus of attention, Japanese households and businesses have already begun to step up their electricity-saving efforts.

◆Major Newspapers’ Commentaries about “no nuke reactor operating”

Just like the divided public opinion over the resumption of nuclear power generation, the tone of the editorials of the national newspapers about the current “nuclear-free” situation are also greatly divided.

The Mainichi Shimbun (May 6) argued, “One cannot help doubting whether Japan really needed so many nuclear power stations as all such plants have now been stopped. Japan has still not achieved a society without nuclear power plants. It is of great significance for us to experience a society that does not use nuclear power and to consider Japan's future energy situation. . . . The government should take this opportunity to map out a strategy to find a way out of its reliance on nuclear power.” Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun, which also takes a de-nuclear power stance, said in its editorial on May 5, “This would be a welcome development if it were a result of a sincere and effective policy response to the popular will to make Japan nuclear-free. But the fact is that Japan has stopped production of electricity with atomic energy because the government's plan to restart idled reactors as early as possible has provoked angry reactions from the public, especially local governments around nuclear power plants.” It went on, “We need to think on our own about how we can reduce nuclear power plants and carve out a new energy future for our society, and then try to build a broad consensus on these issues. That's the lesson we should learn from the consequences of many decades of leaving the development and administration of nuclear power policy entirely to the government.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Sankei Shimbun, and The Nikkei take a completely different position. The Yomiuri (May 5) argued, “All parts of the nation will be walking a tightrope regarding the balance of electricity supply and demand this summer. The situation is far harsher than last summer, when more than 15 reactors were in operation. It is dangerous to take the rosy view that the expected shortages can be overcome by saving electricity like last summer.” The Sankei (May 6) demanded immediately getting out of the “nuclear-free” situation, saying, “It is almost suicidal for a resource-poor nation to be nuke-free. ‘The point of No-Return,’ where Japan won’t be able to recover its national strength, is approaching. We must prevent a catastrophic situation by resuming nuclear plants.” Finally, The Nikkei (May 5) stressed the huge economic loss which results from the suspension of nuclear power plants by arguing, “Businesses cannot help hesitating about investment in Japan unless concerns over the electric supply shortage are resolved. The Increase in oil and natural gas imports to cover the idle nuclear power plants will increase the outflow of national wealth by 2 trillion yen every year and bring about an electricity rate hike, affecting the Japanese economy and the job market and eventually rebounding on our life.”

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