Japan: Last nuclear reactor goes offline, possible energy shortages in summer

Updated On: May 04, 2012

On Saturday, 5 May, the last of Japan's nuclear reactors was switched off. Besides those disabled by the earthquake and tsunami, the rest have been taken offline for routine maintenance and have not been restarted due to lack of public confidence.

But this means Japan faces possible electricity shortages this summer, and the nuclear question has become a tense political issue as well.

Last Nuclear Reactor Goes Dark

When the Hokkaido electric power company shut down the No. 3 reactor at its Tomari plant for maintenance, Japan was left without a single working nuclear reactor for the first time for almost 50 years.

Before the 11 March disaster, Japan relied on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity. Before the disaster at Fukushima, there were plans to build even more reactors, increasing nuclear's share of Japan's electricity supply to 50 percent.

According to the Economist, the Japanese public's unwillingness to restart the reactors may represent a silent rebuke to the way the authorities handled the Fukushima crisis.

The closure of the last operating reactor marks a dramatic shift in energy policy, but the nationwide nuclear blackout comes with significant economic and environmental risks.

No Nuclear - Fossil Fuels and Power Shortages?

Much of the capacity that has been lost or suspended has been replaced by power plants burning fossil fuels. Japan is now boosting purchases of gas and oil to make up for the loss of nuclear energy. But aside from the environmental impact, fuel imports are expensive. In 2011, Japan spent over $57 billion on liquified natural gas imports, a third more than the previous year.

Japan is also bracing itself for a long humid summer, where electricity consumption typically increases, for instance due to air conditioning. Analysts are worried that Japanese manufacturing could be disrupted.

In a report released this week, the government's national policy unit projected a 5 percent power shortage for Tokyo, while power companies predict a 16 percent power shortfall in western Japan, which includes the major industrial city of Osaka.

Until recently, analysts expected the Japanese to lack the appetite for a second year in a row with the threat of blackouts. Even now, some claim opposition to restarting the reactors will fade. But thus far, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko's government has been unable to get reactors up and running again, despite their best efforts.

Political Struggle

The government claims the reactors they are trying to restart are safe, but safety tests have been overseen by the same regulatory bodies whose reputations were damaged by last year's disaster.

To be fair, Mr. Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) inherited their present troubles from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who promoted nuclear power over their 50-year rule. It is not surprising that the LDP opposition is keeping quiet on the nuclear issue. But according to the Economist, both main parties fear that the nuclear debate could become an electoral issue.

Analysis: A silent majority speaks [The Economist, 5 May 2012]

Report: Anxious Japan prepares for life without nuclear power [The Guardian, 3 May 2012]

Report: Japan's Last Nuclear Reactor to Close Saturday [Wall Street Journal, 3 May 2012]

Report: Japan’s Leaders Fret as Nuclear Shutdown Near [New York Times, 3 May 2012]

Related Article