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Japan’s government is facing a potential power shortage, and is believes citizens should cut back on their electricity consumption and even be prepared for rolling blackouts at times of extreme shortages. Photo: Kyodo

Waste of energy: why Japan’s gamble on power since Fukushima could mean a hot summer, rolling blackouts, and the restart of nuclear plants

  • Japan’s power shortage can be traced to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as expensive LNG and dirty coal have been unable to make up electricity shortfall
  • Officials warned that citizens may need to cut back on electricity consumption and to be prepared for rolling blackouts during Japan’s oppressive summer heat
It is going to be a long, hot summer in Japan followed by a long, cold winter after the government’s gamble on the nation’s energy policy fell short.

The government convened a meeting of ministers and energy experts on Tuesday to address a looming energy shortage that could start in the coming weeks and concluded that the public and industry should be instructed to cut back on their electricity consumption and even be prepared for rolling blackouts at times of extreme shortages.

“The government will not set a uniform numerical target to save electricity this summer, but we will ask people to cooperate in saving electricity and energy as much as possible,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said after the meeting.

Japanese asked to save power amid shortage as plants reel from quake

Ministries have been instructed to draw up ways to increase electricity output, with one option the resumption of operations at thermal power plants that have been suspended due to their age. Government agencies are also working on a campaign to show the public ways to limit their electricity consumption, while still making sure they do not fall victim to heatstroke.

The government’s admission that the nation faces a significant energy shortfall through the summer months comes hard on the heels of the warning from the Meteorological Agency that average temperatures will be noticeably higher. The city of Kumagaya recorded a temperature of 33.8 C on May 29, nearly 10 degrees hotter than the average day in May.

Northern and eastern Japan are expected to experience particularly high temperatures this year, the agency cautioned, partly due to La Nina conditions lingering in the Pacific.

Japan’s return to nuclear power faces test as Kishida visits Fukushima

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, finds itself in a predicament over energy supplies due to a combination of factors, analysts say, although the structural problems date back long before the problems being experienced elsewhere in the world as a result of the war in Ukraine.
The cause of the crisis, they say, remains the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant that was destroyed in a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami.
“Before Fukushima, the minimum reserve ratio for power was set at 8 per cent, which was relatively small in comparison with the 16 per cent set by the US,” said Hisanori Nei, a professor of energy policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has crushed public trust in nuclear power and prevented the restart of other nuclear plants in Japan. Photo: Reuters

“Since the Fukushima disaster, the minimum reserve ratio has been set at 3 per cent and if it falls below that figure then the government has plans in place to implement rolling blackouts as and when they are needed,” he said.

According to government predictions, the rate is expected to be at 3.1 per cent in Tokyo, the Tohoku region of northern Japan and in the Chubu district around the city of Nagoya in the central part of the country in July. Even a relatively minor increase in demand could push the figure below the 3 per cent figure.

Even more worryingly, official predictions indicate the ratio will fall to zero in Tokyo in January and February, when demand for heating is traditionally at its peak.

Activists hold placards reading ‘All not guilty’ before the Tokyo District Court in September 2019. Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) were cleared on charges of negligence to prevent the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Photo EPA-EFE/Jiji Press

Nei says the two primary factors behind the looming problem are the failure of the government to convince the public to permit the resumption of operations at the national nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster and the soaring price of LNG, the energy source that Japan largely turned to in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Nuclear energy is providing around 6 per cent of the total needed, with the government hoping to convince more communities and local governments to permit plants to restart if they meet exacting new safety standards. By the end of the decade, the government hopes that nuclear power will provide as much as 22 per cent of the nation’s needs – but that will be of no help this year.

The situation has been exacerbated, said Martin Schulz, chief policy economist for Fujitsu’s Global Market Intelligence Unit, by a number of ageing thermal power plants being shut down and the failure of the renewables sector to pick up the slack in demand.

“This is a hangover from Fukushima, when LNG and coal had to quickly fill the gap when nuclear was no longer available,” he said. “But LNG is now expensive and nobody wants coal because it is dirty.


Meet the man saving cats abandoned in Fukushima nuclear zone for a decade after the disaster

Meet the man saving cats abandoned in Fukushima nuclear zone for a decade after the disaster

“The government planned to bring nuclear back much more quickly than it has been able to, because of public opposition, and there has been no clear policy on renewable energy sources and a lack of the investment that is needed to make solar, wave, tidal, geothermal and others viable,” he said.

Rising prices for consumers will inevitably serve to reduce consumption as households turn off their air conditioners to keep their bills manageable, Schulz said, while industrial users will also find ways to cut consumption.

Professor Nei said the government is already pressuring importers to procure more LNG, despite the high price, but he also senses an ulterior motive in the government’s strategy.

“I have heard it suggested by ministry officials that rising prices combined with rolling blackouts through the summer months might serve to convince the public that they need to approve the restarting of the nuclear plants,” he said.