Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, a powerful movement has called for a halt Japan’s use of nuclear energy, which provided 30 percent of the country’s electricity. The last of 54 nuclear reactors was shut down in May 2012. Two facilities were restarted in June 2012; 52 remain shut. To make up for the loss of electricity generation Japan has had to increase its imports of natural gas, low-sulfur crude oil and fuel oil at a significant cost to the economy and environment. Seventy-five percent of the country’s electricity now comes from fossil fuels.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Not long after the meltdowns, Japan’s anti-nuclear activists were convinced that they had won the debate, and Prime Minister Kan made the dramatic gesture of calling for a temporary shutdown of a plant in central Japan where scientists have estimated that there is an eighty-seven-per-cent chance of a big quake. Many other plants closed for regular maintenance and have delayed reopening; by the end of the summer, fewer than a third of Japan’s fifty-four reactors were in active use. But soon factory owners were warning that power cuts would lead to a recession, and that argument prevailed. Prime Minister Kan, unsurprisingly, did not last long; on August 26th, he resigned, and his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, reversed course, prodding local communities to allow plants to re-start. By fall, a consensus had taken hold among Japanese politicians and intellectuals: there would not be a sudden end to nuclear power in Japan. The country would possibly close some of its oldest plants, but the rest — by one estimate, thirty-six of the fifty-four reactors — would endure. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Anything else would be “idealistic but very unrealistic,” the Economics Minister, Kaoru Yosano, told me when I saw him at his office not long before the new cabinet took over. Yosano was of the generation that triumphantly advocated nuclear power — he bitterly recalls growing up in a house with two light bulbs — and he does not hide his suspicion of what he describes as “so-called renewable energy.” He said, “Simple calculation tells us that our country is not big enough to rely on solar and wind farms. He acknowledged the upheaval wrought by the Fukushima disaster, but he returned, at last, to a frank calculation: “Until this moment, no one died.”

He continued, “We thought that human beings — the Japanese — can control nuclear by our intelligence, by our reason. With this one accident, will that philosophy be discarded? I don’t think so.” He was quiet for a moment, and then he surprised me with a final note — one not of resolve but of caution, directed at “those countries that are just now planning to go into the nuclear age.” He said, “China will build a hundred or two hundred nuclear power stations. I hope our experience will be a good lesson to them.”

Japan’s Last Nuclear Reactor Goes Offline in Hokkaido in May 2012

In May 2012, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. shut down Japan’s last active nuclear reactor at the time to halt the facility for regular maintenance. The No. 3 reactor at the Tomari power station to stop power generation entirely at around 11:00pm on May 6, leaving the nation without nuclear energy for the first time in 42 years. Jiji Press reported: “Japan has not experienced such a situation since nuclear power became a key source of energy for the nation. This unique situation has arisen as the nation remains unable to restart any suspended reactors due to safety concerns stemming from the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant last year.

“Japan went without nuclear power for about 2½ months until the Oi Reactor operated by Kansai Electric was restarted in July 2012 (See Below). This was the second time all the nation's nuclear reactors have been halted. The previous time was in April 1970, when Japan had only two reactors--the Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture and the No. 1 reactor at the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture, also run by Japan Atomic Power. Both reactors were halted for five days from April 30 that year, as the Tsuruga reactor, which is still in service, joined the Tokai plant in going offline for maintenance.

Consequences of No Nuclear Power in Japan

The sudden shutdown of nuclear plants has hit Japan's economy hard. If the nation remains without nuclear energy, it may face major power supply shortages in the peak energy usage times in summer and winter, raising fears of rolling blackouts and a government order to limit electricity consumption.

“AP reported: “To offset the shortfall, utilities have ramped up oil- and gas-based generation, and that contributed to the country's biggest annual trade deficit ever last fiscal year. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and others argue that the higher cost of energy without nuclear will cost people their livelihoods and could cripple recovery efforts.

Mark Lynas wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “According to figures “by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan's current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country's total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

Shut Down of Japan’s Nuclear Power Plants, Costs and Global Warming

According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, reactor operations at 25 of the nation's 54 commercial nuclear power plants were shut down at the time of Fukushima disaster, with 16 of them undergoing periodic checkups. After the crisis these plants were not allowed to restart. When other plants were shut down for periodic check ups or other reasons they were not allowed to restart. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2011]

By June 35 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were idled for one reason or another and the 19 running nuclear power plant had a combined capacity of about 16,550 megawatts, about one-third of maximum capacity.

Since each nuclear reactor must undergo a regular checkup every 13 months, the remaining reactors are scheduled to be suspended one after another over in the months after the disaster. If none were allowed to restart they would all be shut down by the summer of 2012, greatly reducing Japan’s power supply.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry estimated that produce extra electricity from natural gas, oil and other fuels instead of nuclear power would cost an additional $30 billion yen in 2011 and $39 billion in 2012. “The rising costs will result in greater burdens on the people," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said. "We'll seek the public's understanding on nuclear power generation, and we'd like to reactivate [the nuclear power plants currently not in use] and use all possible means of providing electricity."

How about greehnhouse gases and global warming? Japan Center for Economic Research said if all nuclear power in Japan was replaced with fossil-fuel alternatives, CO2 emissions would rise by 7.5 million tons a year, an amount equal to 6 percent of the nation's current yearly total. Sixteen nuclear reactors were out of operation for inspections when the earthquake hit on March 11. If they were to be kept out of operation and replaced with fossil-fuel facilities, total annual CO2 emissions from power generation would be 190 million tons, according to the Environment Ministry. That figure is 15 percent more than Japan's total CO2 emissions from power generation in 1990.

Replacing nuclear power with other energy sources would be a mighty challenge. Issues likely to present complications include importing natural gas and oil, reactivating thermal power plants currently not in use and increasing the number of thermal power plants. The Japan Center for Economic Research has estimated the nation's gross domestic product would decline by 1.4 percent this fiscal year even if all thermal power plants were operated at full capacity. If all Japan's nuclear power plants were to stop operating next year, GDP could fall a further 2.2 percent, according to the center. "The crisis at the Fukushima power plant has become bigger than an energy issue. It's a mid- and long-term issue for the economy," said Tatsuo Kobayashi, a chief economist at the center.

Serious Power Shortage Likely if Japan’s Nuclear Reactors Are Not Restarted

Hideyuki Ioka and Yukiko Yamamoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, The government is moving quickly to resume operations at Oi's reactors, partly because it is highly likely KEPCO's power supply this summer will not meet demand. According to government estimates the utility's power supply might fall 19.6 percent short of maximum demand if this summer turns out to be as hot as that of 2010.

Even if this summer is as hot as that of 2011, when consumers were asked to conserve electricity, KEPCO's supply may fall 7.6 percent short of maximum demand. In the summer of 2011, the government ordered large-lot electricity consumers to reduce their usage in areas serviced by Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, as its supply capacity was expected to fall 8.8 percent short of the total demand. [Source: Hideyuki Ioka and Yukiko Yamamoto, Yomiuri Shimbun. April 11, 2012]

With the suspension of many nuclear reactors, utilities have been facing increasing fuel costs because they have to rely on thermal power generation. Fuel costs at the nation's nine electricity companies--except for Okinawa Electric Power Co., which has no nuclear reactor--are expected to increase by about 2 trillion yen during fiscal 2011 from the fiscal 2010 level, and those for fiscal 2012 will likely jump by around 3 trillion yen, according to government estimates. Consumers may face significant hikes in electricity rates if nuclear reactors remain suspended.

Nuclear Shutdowns May Leave Firms Starved for Energy and Looking to Relocate Abroad

The impact of nuclear reactor shutdowns on business activities is being increasingly felt. Already hit by power shortfalls, private companies now fear power utilities may raise electricity fees. Companies are expressing concern over a situation in which they are having to worry about power shortages all the time. Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd. said it will add an in-house power generator at each of its four production bases, including the one in Osaka. [Source: Takashi Itoda, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 22, 2012]

Small and midsize companies are even more concerned over possible power shortages, as they face being forced to transfer operations overseas. President Teiichi Nishimura of Osaka-based stationery maker Sakura Color Products Corp. said, "If we are asked to reduce power consumption by an additional 10 percent, we'll have to consider relocating part of our production in Osaka to factories in Kagoshima Prefecture and China."

Faced with similar concerns, some companies have refrained from investing domestically, opting instead to invest abroad. For instance, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. is building a factory in Malaysia for the production of materials for smartphones, to be completed in April. According to the company, a factory in Saitama Prefecture had to suspend operations for about a month after the March 11 disaster due to scheduled blackouts. The company said it wants to avoid a possible power shortage this summer.

Gree Inc., a major social networking service operator, also has begun considering whether to move some functions of its domestic data centers overseas. "Unless nuclear reactors are restarted, the exodus of companies abroad will accelerate due to fears of power shortages and a rise in costs," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

Nuclear Energy a Stimulus to the Japanese Economy

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times: Mr. Noda’s government considers foreign reactor projects a way to help stimulate Japan’s export-led economy, which had been struggling even before March’s natural and nuclear disasters. Tokyo’s backing including financial assistance to the customer countries — has become critical in negotiating deals, especially as global confidence in nuclear safety has faltered in Fukushima’s wake. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, October 10, 2011]

But analysts say Japan’s top three nuclear engineering companies — Hitachi, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Toshiba — which had combined profit in their energy and infrastructure businesses of about 242 billion yen ($3.14 billion) in the latest fiscal year, are keener than ever to look overseas.

But Japan is still intent on keeping industrial exports afloat at a time when the country’s export-led economy faces strong headwinds: a strong yen that makes Japanese goods and services expensive on world markets, post-Fukushima energy shortfalls and stiffening competition from Asian industrial rivals.

Expensive projects like new reactors, often accompanied by ancillary business for utilities in fuel operations and maintenance, remain particularly attractive to Japanese commerce officials. In 2010 Japan’s nuclear exports totaled 15 billion yen. The ruling Democratic Party had made the expansion of nuclear exports a centerpiece of its economic growth strategy before March. And when Mr. Kan himself tried to shut down efforts to continue nuclear exports in July, many within his own party urged him to reconsider. If anything, Mr. Kan’s successor and fellow Democrat, Mr. Noda, is more actively promoting nuclear exports than Mr. Kan did. The trade minister under Mr. Noda, Yukio Edano, who now oversees Japan’s nuclear policy, had been a vocal supporter of continued nuclear exports.

Japanese Government Pushes for the Restart of Japan’s Nuclear Reactors

In March 2012 Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that he would "take the lead" in persuading local governments and residents in areas hosting nuclear power plants to cooperate with the resumption of the plants' operations. He also has maintained his administration will aim at lowering the nation's dependence on nuclear power to a minimum in the medium and long term. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 14, 2012]

Within the government, expectations are running high on expanded use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. A new program to encourage the use of renewable energy sources will start in July to oblige electric power companies to purchase electricity generated by renewable means such as solar power at relatively high fixed prices. With the exception of hydroelectric power, renewable natural energy accounts for only about 1 percent of the nation's total power output. The weather and other factors have a deleterious effect on power output. There must be limits on the expansion of these energy sources.

When the rate of dependence on nuclear power is lowered, power companies cannot help but depend on thermal power generation, which also has many problems. Even now, fuel costs for thermal power stations being used as an alternative to nuclear power are said to top 3 trillion yen a year, which is a heavy burden on the nation's economy.

International competition for resources is expected to increase the risk of rising fuel costs and difficulty in procuring supplies. To secure electricity in a stable manner, Japan must improve its nuclear technology and enhance power-plant safety to continue utilizing nuclear power. Therefore, the government must avoid taking a "no nuclear power plants" stance in its new energy strategy. Such a stance would accelerate the overseas outflow of nuclear engineers and make it difficult to cultivate new talent. It would then be difficult to safely manage nuclear power reactors and spent nuclear fuel.The government should also keep open the option of replacing old nuclear reactors in the country with newer and safer ones.

Rush to Restart Japan’s Nuclear Reactors

In April 2012 the Japanese government asking local governments concerned to consent to restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors. Some local governments balked, distrustful of the way the central government was hastily handling the issue. The central government established safety confirmation standards after it became apparent in March that Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) would not be able to supply enough electricity to meet demand in the summer of 2012 in its service areas. [Source: Hideyuki Ioka and Yukiko Yamamoto, Yomiuri Shimbun. April 11, 2012]

In a press conference following a government meeting, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano announced that KEPCO’s two Oi nuclear two reactors have almost met the safety criteria and thus should be allowed to restart. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported the government has been rushing steps to restart the two Oi reactors because it failed to make it clear until recently how important it is to reactivate the reactors, as well as what kind of procedures suspended reactors have to go through before they can be restarted, experts said.

KEPCO submitted to the government the results of stress tests for the Oi reactors in October and November. But the test results were approved in February by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.In March, NISA devised 30 safety criteria based on the Fukushima crisis, which Fukui Prefecture had long asked the government to compile.

The government dew up the safety criteria based on NISA's 30-point guidelines and having KEPCO submit the timetables. According to the timetables, the utility will construct a quake-resistant building to house an emergency headquarters in fiscal 2015--the kind of facility that played an important role in bringing the Fukushima crisis under control. Edano emphasized the government will monitor KEPCO's future commitments to safety enhancements. "We'll require the utility to report every three months on its progress regarding the timetables," he said.

The road map of safety measures submitted to the government by KEPCO clarifies the company's intention to carry out all unimplemented safety measures in 33 fields by fiscal 2015, to reactivate the idled Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant. The road map classifies NISA's 30-point safety standards into 85 fields. The measures in the 33 unimplemented fields include a number of time-consuming endeavors. [Source: Masayuki Takata, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 11, 2012]

A prime example involves ventilation equipment with filters to reduce the amount of radioactive substances released when steam is expelled from a reactor containment vessel. The ventilation equipment was previously considered unnecessary for the containment vessels of the two reactors at the Oi power plant, as the vessels of the pressurized-water reactors are several times larger than those at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. To set up the ventilation equipment, therefore, the piping system has to be newly installed and filters newly designed.

Nuclear Plant Stress Tests in Japan

Stress tests on nuclear power plants were introduced in July to eliminate distrust toward the government and electric power companies, which had claimed nuclear plants were safe before the Fukushima crisis began. The tests are divided into two types: simple first-stage tests on reactors undergoing regular inspections, to check how far they can endure emergencies; and stricter second-stage tests targeting all reactors in the country.

The quake-resistance checks are designed to examine the safety of nuclear power plants in line with 2006 revisions of the guidelines for quake-resistant design tests. Its results will serve as basic data for stress tests. Because an earthquake occurred that was larger than the presumed magnitude as of 2006, it is inevitable that the guideline for quake-resistance checks will be reviewed. In particular, nuclear plants' resistance to tsunami will be largely revised. if the criteria in the guideline change, preconditions for stress tests will also change. Therefore it is possible stress tests may have to be done again.

According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, for the 25 nuclear power plants shut down since the Fukushima crisis to restart, their nuclear reactors need to clear the first stage of stress tests that check the safety of the reactors. In this stage, plant operators assess the safety of the nuclear reactors on the premise that they have been hit by a major earthquake or tsunami. [Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun, August 29, 2011]

The stress test are designed to measure how force nuclear power plants can bear during an earthquake and tsunami or other disaster. In many cases they are carried out using computer models with specs and other data from the nuclear power plants as well as on site tests of steam generators, pumps and other equipment. About 600 engineers, many of them with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, are involved in the tests.

In September 2011, it was disclosed that all 143 nuclear reactors in 14 European Union countries that were subjected to "stress tests" were considered free from grave safety risks, according to interim reports. The tests are designed to gauge whether the reactors are capable of withstanding natural disasters or other threats, including terrorist attacks. The tests exceed the standards set by individual governments. Some environmental groups, however, were skeptical, saying the tests are woefully inadequate in making nuclear safety assessments.

In late August 2011, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said he expects the reactivation of nuclear reactors whose operations were suspended for scheduled checkups to begin in late 2011. Earlier in the month he said that reactors that failed to pass the tests would be permanently shut down. The results will be first assessed by the the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which is part of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, and then checked again by the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission. In the final stage, the prime minister and three cabinet ministers related to nuclear power plants will decide whether to restart the nuclear reactors based on those assessments.

Electric power companies began submitting results of their first-stage stress tests to the agency in September 2011. It was expected that it will take two to three months for the agency and the commission to assess the findings. At that time among the 25 nuclear reactors under suspension due to periodic checkups, stress tests had begun at the Shika nuclear power plant's No. 2 reactor in Ishikawa Prefecture; the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors at Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture; and the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The other nuclear reactors undergoing stress tests have not been officially announced, but the results of first-stage stress tests on the Tomari nuclear power plant's No. 1 reactor in Hokkaido are expected to be submitted to the agency in September.

Nuclear Reactor Restarted in November 2011, a First since the Tsunami

In late October 2011, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times: A nuclear reactor in western Japan began starting back up after a month’s hiatus, the first reactor in the country closed for any reason to win approval from a local government to resume operations since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Genkai Nuclear Power Plant in Saga Prefecture was the first to win approval from a local government to resume operations since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, November 1, 2011]

Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that set off the nuclear disaster, a popular backlash against nuclear power has halted the reopening of reactors closed because of damage at the time or unrelated glitches, or for routine inspections. Regulations require reactors to close at least every 13 months for checks, meaning more and more reactors have gone out of service, with none allowed to restart — until the one in Saga did.

The government has been keen to soothe local jitters about nuclear energy and enable reactor restarts. But power companies must submit results of “stress tests” that evaluate a reactor’s defenses against earthquakes, tsunamis, station blackouts and the loss of water for cooling — and they must get a go-ahead from local the government.

Yasushi Furukawa, the governor of Saga Prefecture, has wavered on whether to allow restarting two idle reactors at the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant. Seen as a bellwether for the rest of Japan, Mr. Furukawa had appeared to be moving toward allowing two of the reactors to restart but his decision was put off after revelations of a scandal over faked supportive e-mails sent by employees of the local Kyushu Electric Power Company posing as pro-nuclear citizens.

Then early last month, a third reactor shut down at Genkai after a worker mistakenly pulled out a cable from the unit’s condenser vacuum, causing the turbine to stop. The full details of the case have not been made public. Kyushu Electric called it a small error and said that the automatic shutdown it triggered had gone smoothly. But some critics warned that the episode constituted a serious safety lapse and pointed to a more widespread problem at other plants. Since then, however, the utility has submitted — and Japan’s nuclear regulators have checked and approved — operation manuals for that reactor, paving the way for a restart.

The reactor at the Genkai plant was started up around 11 p.m. local time and was set to reach 100 percent generating capacity the next day, Kyushu Electric said. But the reactor’s run was brief: the same reactor had to be stopped in mid-December for routine maintenance. The Japanese arm of the environmental group Greenpeace, criticized the decision to restart the reactor, saying “In the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, it is unthinkable for any nuclear plant to be restarted before proper safety checks or consultation with the public is conducted,” said Junichi Sato, the group’s executive director for Japan.

Stress Test of KEPCO’s Oi Nuclear Plant

In the autumn of 2011 the No. 3 reactor at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture operated by KEPCO underwent a first-stage test. It checked how many times stronger a disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami, the reactor equipment could endure than originally envisioned, and how long its cooling functions could be maintained if all alternating current (AC) power supplies are lost. The inspection also covered the effectiveness of emergency safety-enhancement measures implemented in March. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 30, 2011]

The primary stress test showed the reactor in Oicho can withstand an earthquake 1.8 times stronger and a tsunami four times higher than previously assumed, according to KEPCO, which submitted the report to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. The test results confirmed the reactor and its pipes can endure a quake intensity of 1.8 times the presumed figure of 700 gals. A gal is a unit of acceleration of gravity. However, the results also showed that if the acceleration figure exceeds 700 gals, the reactor's core will be damaged. if the figure reaches 1,372 gals, 1.96 times the presumed figure, the reactor will fail to automatically stop.

The 1,372-gals figure is not out of the realm of possibility. During the Niigata Prefecture and Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake in 2007, TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant was hit by tremors about three times stronger than those envisioned. TEPCO then raised the presumed figure to 2,280 gals. A KEPCO official said: "Even if an automatic stop becomes impossible, we can manually stop the reactor. We intentionally did not take this factor into consideration in the latest test."

Concerning tsunami, the test results showed the reactor can endure up to 11.4-meter-high waves, which is four times the presumed figure of 2.85 meters, thanks to improvements in its water-supply pumps. Also, the point at which cooling functions would break down was extended to 16 days after the loss of AC power supply, 76 times longer than the presumed length before the improvement measures.

The nuclear safety agency will spend several months going over the test results, but it says the decision whether to allow the reactor to be reactivated will be up to politicians. The final decision will be left to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three Cabinet members, including Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano, but the government has said no decision would be made before a consensus is reached among local residents and the general public, leaving the government's criteria for reactivating reactors unclear. During the process of making the judgment, the government will ask for cooperation from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

KEPCO wanted to be the first to submit the stress test report, ahead of other utilities, because of its heavier dependence on nuclear power--accounting for 51 percent of its power generation in fiscal 2010. The company decided to examine the No. 3 reactor of the Oi plant first because it has a large output capacity and is relatively new, having started operations in 1991.

In the end it was decided that the stress tests determined that the No. 3 reactor at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture could withstand earthquakes and tsunami more powerful than originally assumed, according to Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency.

Restarting the Oi Reactor in June 2012

In June 2012, AP reported: “Japan's government approved bringing the country's first nuclear reactors back online since last year's earthquake and tsunami led to a nationwide shutdown, going against wider public opinion that is opposed to nuclear power after Fukushima. The decision paves the way for a power company in western Japan to immediately begin work to restart two reactors in Oi town, a process that is expected to take several weeks. Despite lingering safety concerns, the restart could speed the resumption of operations at more reactors across the country. All Japan's 50 nuclear reactors are offline for maintenance or safety checks. [Source: AP, June 16, 2012]

“Public opposition to the resumption of nuclear operations remains high because of the crisis the tsunami touched off at Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. As the government announced its decision, a protest was held outside the prime minister's offices. The restart is being closely watched as an indicator of how aggressively the government will act to approve operations at other reactors. It has been pushing hard to bring some reactors online as soon as possible to avert power shortages as demand increases during the summer months. It says the reactors in the town of Oi are particularly important because they are in an area that relied heavily on nuclear before the crisis, and have passed safety checks.

“Safety is our main concern," said trade and industry minister Yukio Edano. "We have approved the beginning of the restarting process. It will take some time for the reactors to begin generating electricity." He said the government would request people continue to save energy, and added that if there are safety problems, the process could be delayed. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the government's approval after Oi's mayor and the local governor publicly stated they support the plan. Local approval isn't needed legally.

“I approve the plan because I have been assured of the government's safety efforts and because it will provide stability for our industries," Issei Nishikawa, the governor of Fukui prefecture which oversees Ohi, said after meeting Noda in Tokyo. Kansai Electric Power Co. officials say bringing the two reactors online is needed to help avert a power crunch in Osaka, Japan's second-largest metropolis, and other areas in the west. They say demand is expected to peak in mid July or early August, so they need to begin work immediately to get the reactors up and running to avoid shortages.

“In June 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The No. 4 reactor of the nuclear plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, reached full capacity at 1 a.m., which will greatly improve KEPCO's ability to meet power demand in its service area. Regarding the Oi plant, it took more than two months from the time the government asked for consent from local entities to when the reactors could be restarted. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 26, 2012]

Following Oi Plant Restart, Staring More Plants

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Following the reactivation of Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Oi plant the focus is now on whether to restart three other power facilities--Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata plant, Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari plant and Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 26, 2012]

“Hokkaido faces the most serious challenge if the Tomari plant, which is hosted by Tomari village, is not restarted, as people in the region cannot live without heating in winter, when power demand peaks. Hokkaido Electric Power has a total output capacity of 5.35 million kilowatts, excluding the Tomari plant. The maximum demand in the winter of fiscal 2010 was 5.79 million kilowatts, indicating a potential shortfall of 440,000

The No. 3 reactor of Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture is seen as the next to be reactivated after the Oi plant. This is because it is the only idle reactor to have its first-stage stress test results deemed appropriate by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Active Fault May Lie under Shika Nuclear Plant

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A reactor building of the Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture may have been built over an active fault, which could unleash an earthquake, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has disclosed.The existence of an active fault below Hokuriku Electric Plant Co.'s Shika complex has been ruled out twice by the government during nuclear safety screenings. However, NISA says the possibility of the fault being active may have been overlooked in both of the geological surveys at the plant's site. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 18, 2012]

“The first of the government screenings was conducted in 1988 prior to the government's granting of permission to Hokuriku Electric to build the plant's No. 1 reactor, which became fully operational in 1993. The government gave the green light for the construction of the No. 2 reactor in 1999.

“The building housing the No. 1 reactor has been built above what is now suspected to be an active fault. This is the second time a reactor building has been constructed above what is suspected to be an active fault. In April, a potentially active fault was found at the Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga complex in Fukui Prefecture. If the existence of an active fault is confirmed, it will amount to a violation of government-set standards prohibiting nuclear plants and other important facilities from being built in locations where active faults exist.

“At Shika a shallow layer of earth covers a 300-meter-long depression running beneath the southwestern corner of the Shika plant's No. 1 reactor building. The depression is about 250 meters deep, NISA officials said. When it applied for government permission to build the No. 1 reactor, Hokuriku Electric said the depression was not an active fault but a fissure that might have been created by water erosion. Government officials did not question the utility's explanation, according to NISA.

“In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake last year, NISA examined drawings of drilling surveys Hokuriku Electric submitted to the ministry before it received permission for building the No. 1 reactor. The examination was conducted as part of an ongoing review of possible active faults in and around nuclear plants across the country.The findings at the Shika plant showed that the fissure was most likely a reverse fault, one that was created when the bedrock was forced upward an estimated 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. In light of this, NISA concluded the fault should have been detected before the Shika plant was built, the officials said.

“Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a professor of geomorphogeny at Toyo University, said: "By examining the drilling survey drawings, the fissure looks like an active fault to me. "I wonder how the government carried out the screenings before it issued permission for the reactors' construction. The NISA must carry out investigations [of active faults] as quickly as possible at other nuclear power plants.”

“NISA is now trying to determine why the potential fault was not discovered during government screenings. A Hokuriku Electric official said, "We don't believe there is a major problem [with what is suspected to be an active fault], but we are ready to respond appropriately when NISA gives us instructions." The Nos. 1 and 2 reactors of the Shika plant, with outputs of 540,000 kilowatts and 1,358,000 kilowatts, respectively, are both boiling water-type reactors. They account for 20 percent to 30 percent of Hokuriku Electric's power generation capacity.

Nuclear Power Plants Suspected of Having Faults Beneath Them

Masayuki Takata and Kohei Masuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Electric power companies have begun reexamining geological faults underneath or near nuclear power plants, to confirm whether they are active, following NISA’s reassessment of faults after the Great East Japan Earthquake.The urgency of each investigation is different. At Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture, experts have said a fault underneath the plant is likely to be active. In contrast, experts say the possibility is low that a fault underneath the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture is active but are urging the plant's operator to reexamine it as a precautionary measure. However, the results of the reexamination may affect the future of the nuclear power plants--some reactors could even be decommissioned. [Source: Masayuki Takata and Kohei Masuda, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 21, 2012]

“The first target of NISA's reassessments was Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The movements of a 35-kilometer long active fault beneath the grounds of the power plant and several hundred meters away from reactor buildings may affect the crush zone located directly beneath reactor buildings.

“Experts have said faults beneath Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Higashidori power plant in Aomori Prefecture could also be active. Similar possibilities have been cited for Kansai Electric's Mihama and Takahama power plants in Fukui Prefecture and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency's Monju fast-breeder reactor.

Image Sources: Japan Nuclear Power Program, TEPCO, Greenpeace Japan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2014

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