Japan's summer power supply at risk without N-plants

Japan's summer power supply at risk without N-plants
Kyushu Electric Power Co. (above) and Kansai Electric Power Co.

JAPAN - Japan faces its first summer without any operating nuclear reactors since the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit in 2011. The nation's power supply will be in a precarious state since utilities, particularly in the Kansai and Kyushu regions, have depended heavily on nuclear power generation.

This summer Kyushu Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co., who both rely heavily on nuclear energy, will fail to generate enough electricity to provide a stable power supply, according to the latest power supply and demand forecast by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

To meet the minimum necessary power supply, the two utilities will take the unusual step of obtaining electricity from other sources in the industry, including Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Senior officials of KEPCO and Kyushu Electric both indicated a severe outlook for this summer's power supply and demand at press conferences on Thursday, when the ministry forecast was released, with one of them saying the situation will be even more difficult than last summer.

According to the ministry forecast, the nine major power providers' supply surplus-which indicates how much the supply exceeds the maximum demand-all stand at more than 3 per cent, the level needed to maintain a stable supply, when the expected extra supply is included in the calculation.

However, if a request for extra supply from the Kanto region had not been made, KEPCO's supply surplus would be just 1.8 per cent, while Kyushu Electric would face a supply surplus as low as 1.3 per cent.

Last summer, when the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at KEPCO's Oi plant were still operating, KEPCO and Kyushu Electric managed to achieve a supply surplus of about 4 per cent on the day they experienced the highest electricity demand, by making up for the shortfall with supply from various power companies in western Japan, which share the same frequency.

However, last autumn the Oi power plant suspended operations. Then, an accident occurred in late March at a major thermal power plant operated by Electric Power Development Co., also known as J-Power.

J-Power was scheduled to transmit its electricity to each power provider in western Japan. But as there is still no plan to resume operations at the plant, the current situation casts a shadow over whether the firm has enough electricity to give to KEPCO and Kyushu Electric.

As a result, KEPCO and Kyushu Electric decided to ask TEPCO, which uses a different frequency from the two companies, to provide the remainder needed to secure at least a 3 per cent supply surplus.

However, if any aging thermal power plants halt operations for any reason, the power supply will drop-a situation that could bring about an emergency such as a blackout.

To allow the power providers to operate with an extra supply surplus, it is necessary to resume the operation of the idled reactors.

Currently, eight of the nation's 10 power firms have applied for safety inspections of 17 reactors at 10 nuclear power plants. Regarding the other two firms, Hokuriku Electric Power Co. has not made such a request and Okinawa ELectric Power Co. has no nuclear plants.

However, no dates have been scheduled for safety inspections except at Kyushu Electric's Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, leaving the question of how many reactors will eventually be restarted still unanswered.

Kyushu Electric said that it would be able to increase its supply surplus to 5 per cent if the Sendai plant resumes operation. However, with its resumption likely be in late August at the earliest, the supply will not arrive in time to meet the peak power demand period of this summer.

The government wants to refrain from asking companies to carry out power-saving measures with a numerical target, which may take a toll on their productivity. However, if instability of the power supply continues, it may hinder the nation's economic activities, including building new plants and boosting factory utilization.

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