Scratching their heads and rolling their eyes, Chubu Electric Power Co. officials plan to halt all reactors at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, complying with the request from Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
At an emergency board meeting on May 7, the company discussed whether they can make up for lost capacity this summer, such as raising output at thermal power plants and receiving supply from other utilities.
Kan told reporters May 6 that the government aksed the utility to shut down the reactors at the plant on the coast of Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture.
"Although it is a request, it carries the weight close to an order," a senior Chubu Electric official said.
The company plans to suspend operations of three reactors, including one shut down for regular inspections, until it erects a coastal levee of 15 meters or higher in two to three years, sources said. The two other reactors at the plant are being decommissioned.
If the three reactors are stopped, the company's power generation capacity will fall to 26.37 gigawatts, only 770 megawatts above the projected peak demand this summer.
The utility plans to avoid introducing rolling blackouts or mandatory power-saving measures, but it remains unclear whether it can increase thermal power generation or obtain electricity from Kansai Electric Power Co. and other utilities that use the same 60 hertz frequency.
Chubu Electric said it will be difficult to acquire additional fuel for thermal power plants, such as heavy oil and liquefied natural gas.
"Fuel is desperately short," a top company executive said.
Even if more fuel becomes available, increased costs for thermal power generation are expected to weigh heavy on the company's bottom line.
The company estimates that costs will increase 700 million yen a day if thermal power generation is used to make up for lost capacity of the three reactors at the Hamaoka plant.
Chubu Electric also said it would become difficult to continue supplying electricity to Tokyo Electric Power Co., whose capacity plunged after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
"Why can we send electricity to TEPCO when demand may exceed capacity in our own service area," a senior Chubu Electric official said.
Kan decided to ask Chubu Electric to halt all reactors at the Hamaoka plant after hearing opinions from nuclear experts he handpicked after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.
It marked a turnaround because the government had been unclear even on whether the No. 3 reactor, which has been shut down for regular inspections, should be allowed to restart.
At a meeting with Kan in late April, the experts, who were appointed as special advisers to the Cabinet, expressed concerns about the plant, which is located in the focal region in central Japan of an expected Tokai earthquake.
"If an accident happens, key transportation arteries within a 20-kilometer radius, such as the Tokaido Shinkansen Line and the Tomei Expressway, could be disrupted," one said.
"Depending on wind directions, radioactive materials leaked from the plant could affect the Tokyo metropolitan area," another said.
Kan listened without challenging their opinions, according to sources.
The timing of the prime minister's decision was also important.
Kan plans to outline the government's new energy policy strategy, such as promotion of renewable energy as an alternative to nuclear power, at the Group of Eight summit held in Deauville, France, on May 26 and 27.
How to deal with the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, described by some experts as the world's most dangerous, must be decided before the government formulates the new strategy.
Kan sent Banri Kaieda, the minister of economy, trade and industry, and Goshi Hosono, a ruling party lawmaker and a special adviser to Kan on the nuclear crisis, to the Hamaoka plant during the Golden Week holidays.
During the visit, Kaieda repeatedly said the government will reach its conclusion on the Hamaoka plant in early May.
Some government officials were cautious about seeking the shutdown of all Hamaoka reactors.
A Cabinet minister expressed concerns that other nuclear power plants may be suspended "in a domino effect."
But Kan reaffirmed his policy after discussing the issue with Kaieda, Hosono, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku for one hour in the late afternoon of May 6.
Nuclear experts were split on Kan's request.
Keiji Miyazaki, a professor emeritus at Osaka University, said Chubu Electric needs to speed up mid- to long-term safety measures, such as erecting a coastal levee, after adding emergency power generation systems and taking other immediate measures.
"I think the Hamaoka plant will be able to continue to operate if those measures are completed and the response to severe accidents is reviewed," said Miyazaki, who specializes in nuclear reactor engineering.
Kenji Sumita, another professor emeritus at Osaka University, said Kan's request was too abrupt, and the issue needs to be discussed at the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan.
"It is hard to understand what grounds the government based its judgment on and why it made the decision now," said Sumita, an expert on nuclear engineering. "We need to discuss the issue before the public and make a judgment on scientific and technological grounds."
Keiji Kobayashi, a former lecturer of nuclear engineering at Kyoto University's Research Reactor Institute, said there is no guarantee that a coastal levee planned by Chubu Electric will be sufficient to safeguard the Hamaoka plant from tsunami.
Kobayashi had demanded that the Hamaoka plant be shut down immediately, saying a major earthquake is imminent in the Tokai region.
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