Sunday, April 03, 2011
Powering Down in Japan
Wall Street Journal
A key question for Japan's economy is how much electricity it will have in the peak summer months.
The region around Tokyo, which accounts for 40% of the nation's economy, most of Japan Inc.'s head offices and a third of the population, can barely meet peak demand now. In the event of a hot summer, there may only be enough electricity to supply three-quarters of demand. Shortfalls could last months, or years.
So far, rolling blackouts, conservation, lower industrial demand and spring weather have prevented the situation from turning dire. But the future isn't bright.
First, four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are finished. The other two reactors might be as well simply by association. Other nuclear plants that powered down after the March earthquake and those that were already off line for regular maintenance may struggle to get local political approval to soon fire up again.
Fixing nuclear facility vulnerabilities such as inadequate backup cooling systems as well as earthquake and tsunami-proofing could take years and billions of dollars. And until this month, barely-contained spent uranium fuel pools weren't a focus. They are now.
Plants across Japan are sitting on 13,500 tons of spent fuel, much of that in pools that proved hazardous in Fukushima. Reactors are forecast to generate that much again over the next decade, Japan's Federation of Electric Power Companies said last year.
Four years after a 2007 quake, three of seven reactors in the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. still aren't generating power. In August, two more Kashiwazaki reactors are set to shut down for scheduled maintenance. All told, just the nuclear-power shortfall may mean 23% of TEPCO's generating capacity would be out. That excludes damaged conventional plants, which may not return to use as quickly as the company's optimistic assumptions. Also, any shortfall in electricity or a shortage of rainfall makes it harder to operate pump-type hydroelectric stations.
Other types of generation such as natural gas and oil are used for peak periods, but nuclear plants operate as continuously as possible to meet baseload demand. When it comes to electricity, the heat will be on for the foreseeable future.