* Last of 54 reactors scheduled for maintenance May 5-report
* Utilities press old non-nuclear plants into service
* Government imposed power cuts last year, may do so again
By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO, March 25 The possibility of a nuclear
power-free summer in Japan draws closer when one of two
remaining reactors shuts down for on Monday for maintenance,
raising concerns about a power crunch if none of those taken
off-line after the Fukushima crisis is restarted.
Anti-nuclear activists may applaud the prospect that the
reactors that supplied nearly 30 percent of Japan's electricity
before the March 2011 disaster will be shut down. But experts
say firms will have to bear a costly burden and that mandatory
limits on power use may be necessary to avoid blackouts.
Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the
Fukushima plant, will shut down its last running reactor, the
No. 6 unit at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant, leaving online just
one of Japan's 54 reactors.
The one remaining reactor, Hokkaido Electric's
Tomari No.3, is scheduled to go off line on May 5 for
maintenance, the Yomiuri newspaper reported on Sunday.
Safety worries have kept reactors that underwent regular
maintenance from going back on stream after the Fukushima
disaster, triggered by a huge tsunami last March. Tens of
thousands evacuated their homes.
The government is keen to get some running again, but must
first persuade wary locals that the plants are safe.
Most mayors and governors whose communities host nuclear
plants want fresh safety assurances beyond the
government-imposed stress tests conducted in recent months
before agreeing to the restart of reactors, a Reuters poll
Utilities have pressed into service old fossil fuel plants
to boost power supply. But analysts said these ageing facilities
could suffer breakdowns, while companies and vulnerable consumer
groups would also have to bear the pain of adjustments.
"It's tough...We may see a big impact on industrial
activities this year," said Osamu Fujisawa, an independent
energy economist. "It's likely for two or three reactors to come
back online, but that is a drop in the bucket."
The government has estimated that Japan could face a power
shortage of 9.2 percent this summer, or 16.6 million kilowatts,
if all nuclear reactors are down and no measures are taken.
But it also said most of that gap could be filled if steps
such as increasing power supply from fossil fuel plants and
solar power as well as conserving energy are taken.
RISKS, COSTLY STEPS
Last summer, the government imposed power restrictions on
some large corporate users, ordering them to cut usage by 15
To deal with the shortage, manufacturers operated plants at
night and on the weekends to avoid peak hour power consumption.
Companies used in-house generators while cutting down on the use
of air conditioners and lights.
Such steps, while effective, came with costs.
A poll by business lobby Keidanren in October showed most of
53 manufacturers surveyed said it was hard to operate plants at
non-peak hours due to high costs and the burden on employees.
Only one manufacturer was willing to take such steps again.
"Many companies, especially manufacturers, are saying that
if such a situation continues for two or three more years, then
they would have to go abroad," Keidanren official Masami
Hasegawa told Reuters.
Installing in-house generators is expensive.
"The worst scenario for companies would be to install
in-house generators at a high cost and taking a very long time
for investment payback," said Hirofumi Kawachi, a senior analyst
at Mizuho Investors Securities.
Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who oversees energy policy, said
on Friday that Japan might manage to get through this summer
without mandatory power use restrictions.
But Fujisawa, the independent energy economist, warned that
the region served by Kansai Electric, which includes
the huge western metropolitan area of Osaka, may face mandatory
limits because of Kansai's greater reliance on nuclear power
compared to other utilities.
"Edano has said that he wants to avoid a mandatory
restriction on power, but he has not shown how to make this
feasible," he said.
(Editing by Linda Sieg and Ron Popeski)