Chubu Electric Power Company agreed on Monday to suspend operations at the controversial Hamaoka nuclear power plant, three days after Prime Minister Naoto Kan made an unprecedented request for the company to shut down the plant, citing safety concerns. Like the beleaguered Daiichi Fukishima nuclear power plant further north, Hamaoka is located in highly seismic area along Japan’s coast. The government asked that Chubu cease operations until the plant has an emergency plan in place to deal with a tsunami of March 11’s catastrophic proportions. Hamaoka is located in the city of Omaezaki, roughly 125 miles southwest of Tokyo.
Residents and anti-nuclear activists have been worried about the potential dangers in Omaezaki long before the March 11 tsunami led to one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents in northeast Japan. In the weeks since the crisis, protests have been staged in Tokyo to shut down Hamaoka. Kan’s unusual move – in no small part aimed to counter the intense criticism his government has received over its handling of Fukushima – represents both a victory to the anti-nuclear camp and perhaps the beginning of a less aggressive nuclear policy for Japan.
The Hamaoka plant was built in the 1970s near a known fault line on a geologically unstable peninsula, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquake and tsunami damage. During a press conference on Friday, Kan said the government estimates there is an 87% chance of an 8.0 quake in the area within the next three decades. Chubu has already decommissioned two of the plants’ five reactors because they would have been too expensive to retrofit to seismic standards. Today’s decision will affect the three remaining reactors, two of which have been running since March 11, and one of which has been under repairs. Just weeks ago, Chubu was seeking to reopen the third reactor to stave off anticipated summer power shortages.
Indeed, the question of how Chubu will meet its power supply obligations after shuttering the plant remains. This weekend, after a Saturday board meeting, Chubu’s chairman flew to Qatar to secure new liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies to help restart the utility’s old thermal power plants. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of Fukushima, is currently trying to do the same thing, according to Kyodo. The news agency reported Monday that Chubu chairman Toshio Mita was due to meet with Qatari Energy and Industry Minister Mohammed Saleh Al-Sada and the president of the state-run LNG company Qatargas during his visit.
Many companies and individuals are trying to conserve energy on their own to try to avoid rolling blackouts as summer sets in and air conditioner use spikes. Japan is the world’s third largest electricity consumer after the U.S. and China. It’s also the third largest consumer and net importer of oil. Since the oil crisis in the 1970s, Japan has invested heavily in nuclear power to try to eventually decrease its dependence on foreign oil. In 2008, nuclear energy accounted for 24% of the nation’s electricity consumption. Before March 11, the government was on track to raise that figure to 40% by 2017 and 50% by 2030, with a dozen new reactors scheduled to be built. (Read more about alternative energy options in Japan.)
As Kan noted in a follow up address on Sunday, nuclear power will continue to play a major role in Japan’s energy portfolio and its technical export sector. Just today, in fact, news surfaced of a potential deal between Japan and the U.S. to build a nuclear waste storage facility in Mongolia for nations who do not have their own nuclear waste storage options. (Mongolia is currently planning to build its first nuclear power plant by 2020.) However, while no Japanese leader seems to get a very long run at the helm these days, it would be political suicide for any administration to stridently stick to rapid nuclear expanision previously envisioned. The nation’s hangover from Tokyo’s response to Fukushima — which is not over, by the way — will no doubt play a part in shaping the tone, if not the content, of energy policy into a more voter-friendly mix of emphasizing renewable energey sources alongside dependence on nuclear.
Whether the market will appreciate those efforts is another question. Chubu Electric’s shares plunged on Monday, dragging down the Tokyo market as Kan’s request triggered sell offs of other utilities and investors worry that prolonged power shortages could further derail the manufacturing sector that has been crippled by the March 11 crisis.