With the potential of a long, hot and humid summer facing a power starved Japan, the government is in a race against time to approve the restart of two reactors and possibly determine the fate of the country’s troubled nuclear power industry.
Only one of 54 reactors in Japan is now in service and that will soon join the others for regular maintenance checks on May 5. No reactors will restart until they pass stress tests, designed to gauge their ability to withstand catastrophic events such as a tsunami. These tests came into play after the earthquake and tsunami caused a triple meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in March 2011.
Failure to restart the reactors at Oi plant in Fukui prefecture will force Japan to endure a long summer when electricity demand peaks without a single nuclear reactor.
To cover the energy shortfall, Japan drastically increased imports of oil and liquefied natural gas. Private industry is now worrying about loss of competitiveness in the global environment if power shortages force firms to reduce production.
The government estimates the region served by the plant’s operator, Kansai Electric Power (Kepco), which includes the industrial city of Osaka, could experience a power shortage of up to 20% if the Oi reactors do not switch back on.
Supporters of atomic energy worry if Japan and its economy emerge relatively unscathed from a non-nuclear summer, the momentum to restart reactors will be lost forever.
Last week, the economy and industry minister, Yukio Edano, visited the Oi plant after he declared its Nos 3 and 4 reactors “generally” meet the stringent new safety standards.
Kepco is confident the facility could avoid a severe accident if hit by a tsunami of the force that sent the Fukushima plant into meltdown.
But Edano may have trouble persuading the regional government to sign off on a nuclear restart: Public consent is not mandatory, but given widespread anger in Japan in the wake of the Fukushima accident, few expect any reactors to go back online without it.