Chubu Electric Power company, which owns the Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka, today bowed to pressure from prime minister Naoto Kan to shut it down.
Over the past few weeks pressure from various sources has mounted to shut down the plant, which is fairly close to the major urban centres of Tokyo and Yokohama, and lies atop a major fault line that could be involved when 'The Big One' finally hits. On Saturday the prime minister officially requested its closure until modifications can be made in order to cope with a major earthquake or tsunami. Although the operators of the plant are under no legal obligation to close it, a Chubu Electric official said, "Although a request, it carries the weight close to an order."
To some extent I can understand the necessity of giving in to public pressure over something like this. But the decision has left Chubu in a serious bind. There is a good chance that available power supplies will not be sufficient to cope with upcoming summer demand, resulting in rolling blackouts over the Tokyo region.
The main concern about electricity supplies will come when summer temperatures reach their highest. This is when air conditioner use goes through the roof. And if this summer is anything like last year's, there will certainly not be enough power. The irony is that last year's heatwave has been blamed on global warming, a trend no one expects to abate in the near future. The nuclear power plant in Shizuoka, like all others in Japan, was doing its part to help Japan reach greenhouse gas emmission reduction targets and thus help to mitigate global warming. Those targets will likely be thrown out the window now, because as part of the attempt to make up the power shortfall, Chubu will utilise heavy oil and liquefied natural gas power plants.
Nor is this decision actually in the interests of public health. One thing that is often forgotten about the Fukushima incident is that everything worked perfectly. The earthquake activated shutdown sytems for all the reactors and all reactors shut down. The problem was in maintaining cooling water for those reactors as they cooled down. What actually happened was that diesel generators designed to do just that failed because of the tsunami. Once that problem is solved (e.g. through an external power source) there is no reason why any nuclear power plant anywhere in Japan should be especially vulnerable to tsunamis.
Meanwhile, because of this decision, efforts to mitigate global warming are adversely affected, the local Shizuoka economy is seriously hurt, Tokyo will likely suffer blackouts, and many people will be out of work.
The more I think about it the more I think I have to go against public opinion and openly support nuclear power. If anything Fukushima has led me to this. If an aging, obselete power plant can get hit by one of the largest quakes on record, be swamped by a 14 metre tsunami, survive a terrible power cut, and still shut down safely without anybody (so far) being affected in any way by radiation, well, let's build more of them. If the bulk of the world's power was supplied with atomic energy, we would have a safe, non-polluting, carbon-neutral, reasonably-priced limitless supply of energy.