Saturday, May 7, 2011

Japan to Shut a Second Plant

Saturday, May 7, 2011

TOKYO—Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called Friday for a nuclear power plant located near an earthquake fault-line southwest of Tokyo to suspend its operations, reflecting a newly cautious stance on nuclear energy and raising concerns about electricity shortages as the summer approaches.


Chubu Electric Power's Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture.

Mr. Kan drew a clear link between the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damage at the Fukushima Daiichi plant located about 135 miles (217 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo and the threat that could be posed by a similar natural disaster in Hamaoka, which is nearly 117 miles southwest of the capital. The Daiichi facility's reactors lost back-up power in the aftermath of the disaster and overheated uncontrollably, releasing large amounts of radioactive substances.

"I have requested a suspension of operations at all reactors at Hamaoka for the safety and sense of security of the Japanese people," Mr. Kan said at an unscheduled news conference late Friday in Tokyo.

By taking a firm stand at odds with the Hamaoka plant operator, Chubu Electric Power Co., Mr. Kan broke with a long-standing policy in Japan of treating problems at the country's nuclear power plants as isolated incidents. That may raise questions about the fate of other nuclear power facilities which critics say face similar quake-proofing issues, such as Onagawa plant in Miyagi prefecture that was shut down by the March 11 temblor and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata prefecture, which was damaged by a 2007 earthquake.

The government's announcement came just hours after another plant on the Japan Sea coast was shut temporarily to investigate above-normal radiation levels detected in a reactor's cooling water, which may further stoke the Japanese public's unease about the country's 54 nuclear reactors and nuclear regulator's oversight of them — and, in the near-term, aggravate a looming summertime power shortage. Japan's government has promised a review of all its plants' safety measures.


A boy looks at Chubu Electric Power's Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station from an observation deck in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture.

"It looks like the wheels are falling off the nuclear express," said Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "The conventional wisdom of nuclear energy as the cheapest way to achieve reliable power seems to be shifting day-by-day."

Near-term, the loss of Hamaoka threatens to intensify an expected shortage of electricity when Japanese power demand peaks in mid-summer. Although Chubu Electric relies on nuclear power for just 12% of its electricity output—and operates on a different grid than Fukushima Daiichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco—the move could crimp supply to companies with manufacturing operations centered in its coverage area, such as Toyota Motor Corp.

"This will undoubtedly worsen the electricity shortage somewhat, but with the efforts of our citizenry we can conserve enough to make up for that," Mr. Kan told reporters.

Chubu Electric's president, Akihisa Mizuno, said in a statement on Friday that his company would "speedily consider" the government's request, which was conveyed to the utility minutes before Mr. Kan's public remarks, though it hasn't said it will comply. As a result of the decision, Japanese officials said the Hamaoka plant will likely be offline for 2-3 years as safety measures, such as a 50-foot-high (15 meters) tsunami wall, the installation of air-driven cooling systems, and the securing of extra seawater pumps are implemented.

Mr. Kan's surprise move may help combat a reputation for indecisiveness. An April 30 poll by Kyodo News found that 76% of those surveyed believe Mr. Kan's leadership has been lacking in dealing with the nuclear issue and post-quake recovery efforts, up from 63.7% in March. Mr. Kan has come under attack not only by opposition forces in Japan's parliament, but also increasingly by members of his own ruling Democratic Party, which suffered losses in gubernatorial, mayoral and prefectural assembly polls in late March.

The Hamaoka plant has been dubbed "the world's most dangerous" nuclear facility by some in the local media because it sits near an active fault zone. The government's own estimates indicate there is an 87% likelihood of a magnitude-8 or larger earthquake in the immediate area around the plant within the next 30 years.


Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan at a press conference announcing he will ask Chubu Electric Power Co to halt operations at its Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan, due to worries a strong earthquake could cause another nuclear crisis.

The governor of Shizuoka prefecture, where the plant is located, has criticized Chubu Electric for lax implementation of safety measures in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. But Chubu Electric has contested notions its facility is unsafe, saying the plant has taken sufficient steps to prevent a major accident.

While Mr. Kan was trying to show a determination to prevent any future nuclear accidents, workers and regulators continued to report modest progress in the ongoing crisis. Tepco said Friday that special cooling equipment will be scheduled for installation at reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant by the end of the month, making the safe shutdown of the reactor a realistic prospect for the first time since the crisis began nearly two months ago.

Threat by Land and Sea

Dozens of nuclear reactors operate in earthquake-prone regions around the world. At least 34 of them are in high-hazard areas. See a map and database of all of them.

Earthquake in Japan

Mr. Kan's move to pull the plug at Hamaoka—even if only temporarily—may have longer-term policy implications. For one, it could delay Japan's long-term energy policy of boosting nuclear output to 42% of electricity generation by 2020 and 49% by 2030. It could also impact Tokyo's pledge to cut the nation's carbon emissions down to just 85% of their 2005 level by 2020.

It is unclear what impact Friday's decision may have on Chubu Electric's previously announced plans to build an entirely new plant with an additional 3,000-4,000 megawatts of power by 2030.

Separately, Japan Atomic Power Co. said Friday it suspects radiation leaked from a damaged fuel rod at its No.2 unit of the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui prefecture on the Japan Sea coast . As a result, all of Japan Atomic Power's three nuclear reactors will be offline. Tsuruga No.1 is under maintenance through March 2012 and Tokai No. 2 in Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, has been shut since being hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

A campaign by local activists to close the Hamaoka plant gained momentum in the wake of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. In recent weeks, the company has taken steps to dial back its ambitious plans for the facility. On March 23, Chubu Electric attempted to head off efforts to scale back its current operations by announcing a plan to postpone construction of a sixth reactor due by 2015—but only by one year.

In addition to the three operational reactors at the plant that date from the 1980s, Chubu Electric had already begun decommissioning two other 1970s-era reactors at the Hamaoka site. Mr. Kan's action was foreshowed by one of his cabinet official's visit to the plant on Thursday. During a brief inspection of the facility, Japanese Trade Minister Banri Kaieda had expressed reservations over whether the safety precautions at the plant were adequate.

Some critics say the plant should be permanently shuttered. The Hamaoka complex's location on top of an active earthquake fault means that it can probably never be safeguarded completely, no matter what disaster-prevention measures Chubu Electric takes, said Communist Party legislator Hidekatsu Yoshii, who last year warned in Parliament that Japanese nuclear operators weren't prepared for the kind of disaster.

—Hiroyuki Kachi and Phred Dvorak contributed to this article.

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