Tuesday, September 3, 2013
EDITORIAL: Govt Must OK Nuclear Reactor Restarts To Ease Power Crunch
TOKYO (Nikkei)--Japan will have no nuclear power plants in operation for the first time since July 2012 once the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s (9503) Oi nuclear plant go offline for inspections by Sept. 15.
This comes at a time when the country is facing a severe power supply crunch. Because Japan has been saddled with rising imported fuel costs for thermal power generation to replace nuclear power, the government needs to allow the restart of nuclear reactors that meet the revised safety standards.
Stretched To The Limit
In May last year, all of Japan's nuclear reactors were taken offline in the wake of the devastating nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. To avert serious power shortfalls during summer, the government decided to resume operations at the Oi plant, which came back online in August 2012, based on the tentative safety standards in force at the time.
The shutdown of the two Oi reactors is in line with rules requiring regular safety checks within 13 months of the resumption of operations. It has already been nearly two and a half years since that catastrophic nuclear accident, and Japan's power crunch seems to have eased somewhat, at least on the surface. However, Oi's planned shutdown serves as a vivid reminder that the country's electricity supply is still teetering on a knife's edge.
As extremely hot weather raged on across Japan this summer, power usage in Kansai Electric's service area shot up to 96% of capacity on Aug. 22, just below the level at which the government issues warnings.
Japan's regional power companies have been running thermal power plants at full capacity to make up for the loss of nuclear power. But these companies have had to use some old, long-idled thermal power facilities, which has resulted in a number of technical difficulties.
With the heat wave still going strong into September, Japan faces lingering concerns over its power supply-demand balance.
Reactors For Recovery
Japan paid about 3 trillion yen more for importing fuels, such as crude oil and liquefied natural gas, in fiscal 2012 than it did before the March 2011 nuclear accident. The additional costs for fuel imports will likely increase to 3.8 trillion yen this fiscal year.
Indeed, three regional power companies -- Hokkaido Electric Power Co. (9509), Tohoku Electric Power Co. (9506), and Shikoku Electric Power Co. (9507) -- raised household electricity rates by average 7-8% on Sunday, joining three other utility firms that have already hiked their power rates.
Japan's continued purchase of large amounts of oil and LNG for thermal power plants means that the country is losing more of its national wealth and the public is suffering a growing fiscal burden. This could put a damper on the country's nascent economic recovery.
To avoid such a scenario, the government must allow the use of nuclear reactors whose safety has been confirmed. The revised safety standards have been put in place for this very reason. So far, four power companies have already applied to restart a total of 12 nuclear reactors, and the Nuclear Regulation Authority has embarked on safety screenings. Parties concerned must ensure that such screenings will be carried out smoothly.
In the meantime, the government should take action on the deepening crisis involving leaks of radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which has heightened concerns among the public. First and foremost, the government must restore the public's damaged trust.
(The Nikkei, Sept. 3 morning edition)