While it is still uncertain how the worsening crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant will ultimately play out, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s decision to pump in seawater to cool the reactors effectively damaged them beyond repair.
This raises a key question: How will Japan answer its demand for electricity?
“It’s easy to assume seawater did severe damage to the reactors,” nuclear energy expert Kumao Kaneko said, noting there is no way to predict how the impurities in seawater will affect sealed reactors.
Kaneko, who served in the nuclear energy division at the Foreign Ministry, suggested building a new nuclear plant may be cheaper than trying to restore one, although the process may take over a decade.
The Fukushima No. 1 plant has four reactors damaged by Friday’s temblor and tsunami. The oldest yielded 460 megawatts, the other three churned out 784 megawatts.
Tepco at this time of year usually generates about 50,000 megawatts in total, but with the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 plants shutting down and other power plants in the Tohoku region damaged, it can only generate about 31,000 megawatts.
Tepco meanwhile saw an estimated maximum demand of 38,000 megawatts Saturday and 41,000 megawatts Monday. The hastily prepared rolling power outages in some areas are an attempt by the utility to avoid a full-fledged blackout in the capital and surrounding areas.
These are not the first electricity shortages caused by earthquakes shutting down nuclear power plants.
In 2007, Tepco had to halt its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture after a magnitude 6.8 temblor hit the area. The utility at the time asked for power from Tohoku Electric Power Co., which covers northeastern Japan.
This time around, Tohoku Electric can’t share power because its electricity plants were also damaged Friday.
Power supply from western Japan is also not workable, experts said.
“Kansai Electric Power Co. is eager to help out, but its capacity is limited,” Mikio Kitada, former executive of Kepco, told The Japan Times.
In the Meiji Era, eastern Japan built its electricity grid based on a German system that operated on cycles of 50 hertz. Western Japan opted to go with the American 60-hertz system. Because of this incompatibility, Kepco can’t redirect its power to Tepco.
There are two substations in Shizuoka Prefecture and one in Nagano Prefecture that can convert the cycles and transfer electricity from the west to the east. But the capacity of such systems is limited to 1,000 megawatts a day.
Considering that Tepco is short by about 10,000 megawatts, the help is only a drop in the bucket, Kitada said.
Although Tepco has said the temporary electricity outages may continue until the end of April, how long shortages will last remains uncertain.
For one, the process of building a nuclear plant takes about a decade just for construction to begin, with another three to four years until it can begin generating electricity, according to Kaneko.
He added that the project would also come with a hefty price tag, including compensation to local industries and governments as well as the purchase of property.
Kitada, who was involved in thermal power generation projects at Kepco, said eastern Japan has no choice but to return to relying on nonnuclear generation methods.
“Thermal generation has continued to work as a backup to nuclear power plants when there was shortage in electricity,” Kitada explained. Tepco is expected to operate its thermal plants in Kawasaki and outside Yokohama.
Kitada added that use of thermal power plants will inevitably come with more carbon dioxide release compared with nuclear generated energy, but the use of natural gas can reduce the concern.
Yet he questioned whether that will be sufficient when electricity demand hits its peak in summer.