albatross of nuclear power in Japan
The Japan Times, 15 June 2003
By Philip Brasor
Original address: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?fd20030615pb.htm
According the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco),
the residents of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area are facing the
crisis of a power shortage this summer because most of the company's
nuclear reactors will remain shut down for inspections and repairs stemming
from last year's discovery that the company had for years failed to
report safety violations at its nuclear facilities.
The utility is currently running a public-relations
campaign that calls on customers to cut electricity consumption so as
to avoid potential blackouts this summer.
Because everyone agrees that saving energy is a
good idea the campaign seems irreproachable, but when analyzed in conjunction
with its stated purpose -- to avoid blackouts -- it sounds strange.
Generators produce power to meet demand for electricity from moment
to moment, so "saving" energy right now has no effect, say,
several months down the road.
In order to avoid blackouts by saving energy, consumers
have to cut back at the moment demand peaks. According to Tepco, demand
will peak in the summer, and in one of their TV spots, they show someone
opening a book to a page that reads "1 to 4 p.m.," the period
when demand is most likely to peak on a given day.
People who see the ad will believe that between
those times the electricity demand is high, but what it actually means
is that at moments during this period demand may spike. Or it may not.
In 2001, energy demand exceeded 60 million kw -- the amount that Tepco
says it needs to keep Tokyo operating normally -- on only eight days,
and for no more than an hour or so on each of those days.
The campaign targets home consumers, but the real
purpose isn't really to convince people to turn off appliances. Home
electricity use accounts for about 30 percent of total energy consumption,
according to consumer group estimates (Tepco claims it doesn't have
such statistics). It's more effective to get industry to cut consumption.
The real reason for the campaign is to convince the public that there
is a crisis.
In other words, the ads are mentally preparing the
residents of Tokyo for possible blackouts and the media has gone along
with the scheme. Last week, Sapio ran a hysterical article that compared
Tepco's travails to the end of the world. Newspapers are reporting that
the utility is frantically making deals with other regional power companies
to buy energy as needed. Tepco estimates that it will be able to supply
about 56 million kw and projects that peak demand during the July-August
period could reach 64 million kw. The company announced that it hopes
to have six to eight more nuclear reactors online by July, which would
be enough, but first it has to win the approval of people who live near
the reactors. That's why industry minister Takeo Hiranuma went to Niigata
last week to apologize to the people of Kashiwazaki for the scandal,
since the city is home to reactors that supply Tepco.
All these efforts to get those reactors up and running
are being carried out for an important reason. Tepco is required by
law to supply enough power to its customers. If it fails, it is subject
to huge lawsuits. But there are plenty of places to obtain power when
needed. According to the Citizens' Energy Research Center, a nongovernment
organization, Hokkaido's generators can supply loads of electricity
in summer due to its cooler climate, and JR East has said it can sell
electricity to Tokyo. They also note that large companies and hospitals
that need continuous electrical power already have emergency backup
If Tepco were genuinely concerned about saving electricity,
they'd apply for rate increases, which is what every utility in the
world does when they want to curb usage. But the main objective of the
PR campaign isn't energy conservation, but rather convincing consumers
that they need those nuclear reactors when, in fact, they're doing all
right without them. Between April 15, when the No. 6 reactor in Fukushima
went off-line for inspections, and May 7, when the No. 6 reactor in
Kashiwazaki went back online, Tokyo residents were 100 percent nuclear-free
for the first time in decades. There were no problems at all.
Nuclear advocates always say that Japan needs nuclear
power so that it isn't dependent on foreign oil, an argument that supposedly
addresses both environmental and economic concerns. But last year's
scandal showed that, whatever dangers lie in foreign oil dependence,
there are more immediate dangers inherent in nuclear power. Economically,
nukes are insupportable. It is extremely expensive to shut them down
and then start them up again, and if the scandal has taught us anything
it's that nuclear reactors need to be shut down someday.
In an interview that appeared in the June 1 issue
of Safety for Food and Life, Meijo University physics professor Atsushi
Tsuchida said that all of Tepco's nuclear reactors have developed structural
problems, which means the problem is in the basic design. Shutting down
reactors for inspections and repairs should therefore be part of the
normal operating procedure. Last year's scandal emerged when it was
discovered that Tepco covered up these unforeseen problems in the '80s
and '90s. In response, the government has simply lowered safety standards.
Effective this October, cracks that previously required repairs will
no longer be considered reason enough for shutting down a reactor.
In the final analysis, however, it's difficult to
blame Tepco for the scandal. According to Tsuchida, Japan's regional
power suppliers never wanted nuclear power. Back in the '70s, the president
of Hokuriku Power was removed from his post when he told the government
he didn't want a nuclear reactor built within his jurisdiction. By that
point, the government had decided that nuclear would be the basis of
Japan's energy policy, and, with the media on board, the only obstacle
to the total realization of that policy right now is public opinion.