Japan faces season of peak power demand without nuclear plants
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Japan faces a long, hot summer without nuclear energy as power companies warn they will effectively have nothing in reserve when seasonal demand peaks.
"We have managed to secure the minimum necessary power surplus thanks to the support of other utilities companies," said Jiro Kagawa, the vice-president of Kansai Electric Power. "But we have virtually no extra power supply."
Kagawa's comments are seen as a thinly veiled plea to the government and nuclear-industry regulators to hasten the approval of modifications at atomic power plants across the country.
All of Japan's reactors remain offline as regulators examine plants for defects highlighted by the disaster at the Fukushima plant in March 2011. Work is still under way at the site to get four crippled reactors under control and to clean up the radiation that escaped when it was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami.
And while Japan managed to make it through the last three summers relatively unscathed, analysts fear that fading public consciousness will mean people forget to rein in their power consumption, while demand from the industrial sector is rising as the national economy picks up again.
"It is not only the power companies that want the reactors restarted, but manufacturing firms are also pressuring the government," said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
"I'm sure the government would like nothing better than to be able to do that, but approval for the plants has to come from the regulators," he said. "And their priority is safety rather than the needs of companies."
Despite suggestions on a number of occasions that regulators were about to give approval for a reactor to restart, the agency is being extremely conservative. Its predecessor came in for savage criticism for either failing to spot flaws in the defences at Fukushima or not insisting that more measures be taken to protect the site.
Another hurdle will come after the regulators finally grant approval for a reactor to be fired up again, when it has to be endorsed by local authorities.
The majority of the Japanese public is deeply suspicious of nuclear energy, particularly people who live close to the 50 reactors that dot the coastline.
In previous summers, the government has set numerical targets for companies to reduce their energy consumption in order to avoid blackouts. Firms have responded with a series of measures to reduce the strain on the national grid - including raising thermostat settings in offices and arranging production schedules to take advantage of off-peak nighttime power supplies.
Kotani believes the government fears that setting limits on energy consumption will stifle the nascent economic recovery and put Japanese firms behind their overseas competitors.
But others say the utilities' dire warnings are more driven by economic concerns over the escalating cost of importing oil and gas to meet the needs of industry.
"I do not believe there will be energy shortages because utilities can control the power balance very carefully and accurately," said Tomoko Murakami, a nuclear-energy expert with the Institute of Energy Economics Japan.
"They have plenty of thermal power plants and can import all the oil and gas that the country needs," she said.