April 2003

Tokyo Is Told: Go Nuclear or Go Dark

The New York Times, Tokyo, April 12, 2003
By Howard W. French

[Posted 14/04/2003]

As the last cherry blossoms began falling from the trees here this week, the Japanese began dreaming of the approaching summer.

But judging by the warnings of the electricity company here in the world's largest city, this will be a summer unlike all others, with severe power shortages and even blackouts predicted.

Industry officials hedge these alarming forecasts with one big "if." The Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, says it will be able to keep its 43 million customers' tempers from boiling over only if it is allowed to press 16 nuclear power plants back into operation. The plants were temporarily taken out of service last year after a scandal over falsified inspections and poor maintenance.

The latest crisis in a long-running series of public relations and safety disasters for Japan's nuclear power industry began last fall, when cracks were discovered in the containment vessels of several nuclear reactors. Under the glaring eye of an angry public, numerous other embarrassing facts were soon being unearthed.

It was found that engineers had been routinely falsifying repair records, including those for one of the several Tepco plants in Fukushima, where a serious leak of radioactive liquids was hushed up. To regain the confidence of residents of areas near nuclear reactors, and perhaps to ward off tighter government regulation, the company closed 16 of its 17 atomic plants until thorough inspections and repairs could be performed.

"We clearly mishandled the situation," said Hiro Hasegawa, the company's deputy manager for corporate communications. "We falsified things and mishandled the leakage. It was really terrible."

For all of the recent contrition, however, citizen groups and antinuclear activists say the electricity industry is trying to pull another fast one. They say the company is playing on the fears of residents of a city that is one of the world's most densely inhabited and has a summer climate to match Atlanta's for mugginess.

"This is just an excuse for Tepco to resume operation of its atomic plants," said Kazuyoshi Sato, the leader of an antinuclear group in Fukushima, a city nearly 200 miles north of Tokyo. "Even without the nuclear plants, Tepco will have 58 million kilowatts of capacity. They say the demand will be 64 million kilowatts, but in most years the peak has been about 59 million kilowatts."

Recently, Mr. Sato, and other opponents of nuclear power have begun to use distinctly American-sounding "not in my backyard" arguments, noting that almost all of the company's reactors are located in distant towns, far outside the company's Tokyo service area.

"They may be able to manipulate consumers in the Tokyo area, but this is still a big scandal here in Fukushima," Mr. Sato said. "We don't get our electricity from Tepco, so we think it's time for people in Tokyo to begin making some sacrifices."

The power company, of course, paints a very different picture with its supply-and-demand data, and says that unless at least 10 of its suspended reactors come back online before the hottest days of summer, there will be a crisis. "It will be very difficult — no, I should say impossible — to meet demand," said the company spokesman, Mr. Hasegawa.

For now, the company is urging consumers to think creatively about conservation. The advice has run from the obvious — run air conditioners as little as possible — to the arcane. In a country where many people have electrical toilets with heated seats, fancy jets for rinsing and fans for drying, the power company is urging people to keep the lids down when not in use.

Analysts say that the most important effect of the current crisis will be to deliver another stout — and perhaps even decisive — blow to a nuclear power industry riddled with profound safety and cost problems.

Just as Japan's economy has been ever so gradually inching toward reform, the country has been slowly edging toward reconsidering its use of nuclear power. This is likely to result in less emphasis on nuclear energy as source of electricity in the future, and certainly less of what critics say have been exorbitant, pie-in-the-sky schemes to develop exotic new generators.

"There is almost an emerging realization that increasing the number of nuclear plants is almost impossible," said Tatsuo Hatta, a professor of urban economics at Tokyo University. "People felt until a year or so ago that maintaining the current nuclear capacity was necessary in order to maintain the price of power at reasonable levels," Professor Hatta said. "But given all the recent incidents, even this is now in question."

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