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Japan’s power shortage risk rises as winter looms

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If a major power outage occurs in the depths of winter, people could die. The government and power companies must exert all possible effort to achieve a stable supply of electricity during the winter.

A power-saving campaign period for the winter will start next Monday. The nation’s electricity companies, except for Okinawa Electric Power Co., will call on their consumers to save electricity to a reasonable degree.

This is a measure that has to be taken as the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors have stopped operating and have no prospect of being restarted even as winter, when power consumption increases for heating, comes rolling in.

To prevent a power failure, it is said that a power company’s electricity supply should be at least 3 percent greater than its total power demand. Due to measures such as the full operation of thermal power plants, all of the nation’s power companies are expected to secure this minimum power supply. Nevertheless, Kansai Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co. is expected to have an extra power supply of only the minimum limits. Kansai Electric has 3 percent, and the figure for Kyushu Electric is expected to be 3.1 percent.

We should all take such power-saving measures as turning off lights when we leave a room and turning temperature settings down both at home and in offices so we can all weather the cold season safely.

It is also necessary for the electric utility industry, as a whole, to prepare for contingencies by, for example, reinforcing the system whereby power companies with ample supply capacity use their extra power to assist areas hit by a power shortage due to a breakdown of a power plant.

Among the nation’s utilities, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. is highly likely to be forced to budget its power supply most precariously. Beyond the nationwide call for power saving, Hokkaido Electric will call on its business and household customers to reduce electricity use by more than 6 percent, compared to fiscal 2010, during the hours 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays between Dec. 9 and March 7.

This is the second year in a row that the utility has attached numerical targets to a call for winter power-saving. Behind such calls is the tight conditions of its power supply. Eight of its 12 thermal power plants have been in service for more than 30 years, with stoppages increasing due to malfunctions. In June, a large-scale power loss of nearly 1.2 million kilowatts occurred.

Hokkaido Electric has only 400,000 kilowatts in surplus generating capacity for this winter. As the transmission capacity of the power cable linking Hokkaido and Honshu is limited, the total amount of extra electricity that other utilities may provide is only up to 600,000 kilowatts. Should a large-scale problem disrupt Hokkaido’s electricity supply, there could be power outages there.

In Hokkaido, there are areas where the temperature falls to minus 30 C. If heating devices cease to function due to a power failure, many people may face the danger of freezing to death.

Also worrisome is a scenario in which infrastructure becomes paralyzed, as it becomes impossible to melt snow off of roads and prevent water pipes from freezing. Such thoughts as, "There is enough power even without nuclear power plants" are too optimistic.

In a bid to restart three reactors at its Tomari nuclear power plant, Hokkaido Electric has filed a request for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to give the plant a safety inspection.

It is now necessary to steadily let not only the Tomari plant but also other nuclear power plants resume operation once their safety is confirmed, thus putting an end to the current situation of no nuclear power plants being in operation.

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