Another long, stupefyingly hot summer is looming for Japan just as it shuts down its last operating nuclear power reactor, worsening a squeeze on electricity and adding urgency to calls for a green energy revolution.
On Saturday, the last of the country’s 50 usable nuclear reactors was switched off, completely idling a power source that once supplied a third of Japan’s electricity. At a time when temptation to set the air conditioner to deep freeze is at its greatest, companies and ordinary Japanese will be obliged to economize amid temperatures that can climb above 40°C.
Nuclear energy seemed a steady mainstay of Japan’s power supply until March 11 last year, when a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in the worst atomic accident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Authorities have since tightened safety standards and refrained from restarting reactors that were shut down, mostly for routine checks.
To offset the shortfall, utilities have ramped up oil and gas-based generation, giving resource-poor Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, its biggest annual trade deficit ever in the last fiscal year. That US$100 million-plus a day extra cost, worries over the risks of nuclear power and concern over carbon emissions are leading many decisionmakers to view renewable energy such as solar, hydro and wind more positively.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has pledged to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power over time, while Japan is debating renewable energy targets of between 25 percent to 35 percent of total power generation by 2030, looking to Germany, which raised its proportion of renewable energies from 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent by 2010.
“If Japan has the motivation, it can do this, too,” said Sei Kato, deputy director of the Environment Ministry’s Low Carbon Society Promotion Office. “We have the technological know-how. Japan can do anything that Germany can.”
Real change has been slow. Giant solar arrays and wind farms cannot be built overnight and powerful utilities that spent billions on nuclear are lobbying to protect their interests. The government is muddling along, seemingly unable to take a decisive stand either way as opinion becomes increasingly polarized between mavericks calling for massive investment in alternative energy sources and big business interests that favor keeping Japan Inc nuclear powered.
Many believe Japan has little choice but to restart nuclear reactors even in the face of spirited public opposition. Utilities predict power supplies could fall 16 percent below demand in western Japan during the summer peak.
The government is eager to restart some reactors in coming months if it can persuade skeptical local leaders and residents that they are safe.
“The bottom line is that without nuclear power, Japan will have a very hard time meeting demand,” said Paul Scalise, a fellow at the University of Tokyo who specializes in Japan’s energy sector.
Oil, coal and gas now generate about nearly 90 percent of Japan’s electricity, with hydropower accounting for about 8 percent and other renewables — solar, wind, geothermal and biomass — making up the balance.
The International Energy Agency estimates shutting all nuclear plants increases oil demand by 465,000 barrels a day to 4.5 million barrels a day, raising Japan’s daily costs by about US$100 million.