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Nuclear crisis forces Japan to rethink energy needs

The March 11 quake and tsunami left much of Japan with a shortage of electricity and fuel. But the dark age has inspired creative ways to make do and save energy.

March 25, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Many residents in northern Japan continue to face a gasoline shortage. At a gas station in Senmaya, customers start lining up a day early to fill up.
Many residents in northern Japan continue to face a gasoline shortage.… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tokyo — The first pitch of Japan's baseball season has been pushed back so that people don't waste gasoline driving to games. When the season does start, most night games will be switched to daytime so as not to squander electricity. There'll be no extra innings.

Tokyo's iconic electronic billboards have been switched off. Trash is piling up in many northern Japanese cities because garbage trucks don't have gasoline. Public buildings go unheated. Factories are closed, in large part because of rolling blackouts and because employees can't drive to work with empty tanks.

This is what happens when a 21st century country runs critically low on energy. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami have thrust much of Japan into an unaccustomed dark age that could drag on for up to a year.

"It is dark enough to be a little scary.... To my generation, it is unthinkable to have a shortage of electricity," said Naoki Takano, a pony-tailed 25-year-old salesman at Tower Records in Tokyo's Shibuya district, in normal times infused by pulsing neon lights.

The store has switched off its elevators and the big screen out front that used to play music videos late into the night, a situation that Takano expects to last until summer.

Japan's energy crisis is taking place on two fronts: The explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear compound and the shutdown of other nuclear plants owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. have reduced the supply of electricity to the capital by nearly 30%.

Nine oil refineries also were damaged, including one in Chiba, near Tokyo, which burned spectacularly on television, creating shortages of gasoline and heating oil. Gasoline lines in the northern part of Honshu, Japan's main island, extend for miles. About 30% of the gas stations in the Tokyo area are closed because they have nothing to sell.

Economists say it is difficult to parse out how much is the result of scarcity and how much comes from hoarding.

"We are close to getting back to the gasoline capacity we had before the earthquake, but we are hearing demand has been two- to threefold the normal volume," said Takashi Kono of the policy planning division in the natural resources and fuel department at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "With that much demand, of course we're looking at a shortage."

The U.S. military has allocated up to 250,000 gallons each of gasoline and diesel for use in the relief operation.

Energy analysts expect the gasoline crisis to ease in the coming weeks as supply lines reopen and panic buying subsides. The electricity shortage, however, is likely to linger for months and might get worse as the weather warms up and people try to turn on their air conditioners.

Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun newspaper on Tuesday quoted an unnamed senior official of Tokyo Electric, which serves 28 million customers, as saying rolling blackouts could last a year.

Electricity is the talk of the town. Newspaper readers pore over detailed schedules of the rolling blackouts printed on the back pages. Many movie theaters are closed, companies have switched off unnecessary lights and advertising, restricted use of elevators and shortened working hours.

For now, gasoline shortages are disrupting both daily life and relief efforts.

In Akita, a city 280 miles north of Tokyo, the few gas stations that are open have lines extending as long as a mile and limit purchases to four gallons. It would hardly be worth the wait, except that people want gas for emergencies — for example, if they need to flee radiation from the disabled nuclear plant.

The lack of gasoline for delivery trucks has aggravated shortages of key products, especially milk, bread, batteries, toilet paper and mineral water.

"You can't buy anything, you can't go anywhere, you can't do anything. We're basically hanging out at home," said Megumi Fukatsu, an accounting student in Akita.

Some of those left homeless by the quake and tsunami still have cars but can't use them, while relatives who would otherwise rescue them don't have the gas to reach the coastal areas. Some trying to flee the dangerous spewing nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture weren't able to do so because their gas tanks were empty.

Around Japan, a sympathetic public has been energized to help out earthquake victims with collections of clothing, blankets and food. But there is no way to get the aid to victims.

"Everybody is willing to donate. How we will drive this stuff to the coast, I don't know," said Noriyuki Miyakawa, a 19-year-old from Akita who was stuffing thick, fuzzy sweaters into cartons at a community center.

The electricity shortage will be harder to fix.

Besides the damage to the nuclear reactors, two thermal power plants were knocked out by the earthquake. And the energy grid in Japan is split in two, a peculiarity that means the energy-starved north cannot borrow from the south.

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