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Japanese plant in harm's way will suspend nuclear power production

The Chubu company's Hamaoka facility is considered vulnerable in the case of a strong earthquake and tsunami.

May 09, 2011|By John M. Glionna and Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times
  • Chubu Electric Power Co. President Akihisa Mizuno arrives at a news conference at the company's head office in Nagoya, Japan.
Chubu Electric Power Co. President Akihisa Mizuno arrives at a news conference… (Toru Hanai / Reuters )

Reporting from Tokyo — A Japanese utility agreed Monday to take its reactors off-line at a seaside nuclear power plant, just days after Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for the shutdown over concerns that a strong earthquake and tsunami could provoke another nuclear crisis.

Board members of the Chubu Electric Power Co., Japan's third-largest electric supplier, met behind closed doors over the weekend before announcing late Monday that the utility would temporarily shut down the three reactors at its Hamaoka facility not far from Nagoya.

Kan's request last week signaled that the central government would at least for now seek to rein in an industry that in recent years has wielded increasing influence in the ongoing national debate over energy policies.

After a magnitude 9 quake March 11 triggered a tsunami that damaged the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, releasing radioactivity into the surrounding area, government officials evaluated the nation's 54 reactors for vulnerability in case of a similar disaster — prompting Kan's call for a shutdown.

Chubu President Akihisa Mizuno said the crisis at the Fukushima plant had triggered widespread concerns about nuclear energy.

"We decided to stand by a policy of putting safety first in our nuclear power business," Mizuno said in a nationally televised news conference.

He said the reactors would stay off-line until the company had built a taller wall to prevent tsunami damage and put in place other safety measures, which could take as long as two years to complete.

Without the three reactors, the company is expected to have just enough electricity to get through the summer, when energy use peaks. But analysts said factories and major companies with operations near Nagoya could face an energy shortfall if temperatures soar above average.

The decision came after the company's chairman, Toshio Mita, returned earlier in the day from the Middle East on a mission to purchase liquefied natural gas to use in lieu of the plant's nuclear-generated power.

Kan called the company's decision "extremely good."

"The government has to make sure that the electricity supply is sufficient," he told reporters.

The government had raised concerns about the Hamaoka plant because the complex is in an area that experts believe is at risk of a major earthquake. The Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion has predicted an 87% chance for a magnitude 8 quake near the plant sometime in the next 30 years.

The Hamaoka plant is built to withstand a magnitude 8.5 quake and a 26-foot tsunami.

"The Hamaoka nuclear plant sits directly on top of this fault," said Toru Ishii, an official in the Education and Science Ministry's earthquake disaster prevention research division.

In another move many view as a get-tough policy on Japan's nuclear industry, Kan over the weekend increased the scope of the compensation that Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima plant, should pay. Kan said the payments should cover all damage, including that caused by unfounded fears of radiation.

The agricultural, livestock and fishing industries in the Fukushima prefecture near the stricken plant have all taken a severe hit because of fears that their products are contaminated. The government said it would add losses suffered by those industries to its payment guidelines.

But the central government has stopped short of declaring all-out war against the nuclear industry. This weekend, a high-ranking official insisted that nuclear power would remain a large part of Japan's energy policy.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said there was "no need to worry" about any reactors other than the ones at the Hamaoka plant.

Japan derives more than one-third of its electrical power from nuclear energy, and industry proponents had argued that shutting down the three reactors would worsen power shortages anticipated for this summer, despite public efforts to scale back on neon lighting, air-conditioning and escalators around Tokyo.

Located 125 miles west of the capital city, the Hamaoka plant provides service to 16 million people in central Japan, making it one of the region's major power suppliers. Its customers include Toyota and other heavy industries.

Environmentalists have applauded Kan's plans. In a recent statement Greenpeace called Hamaoka "one of the most dangerous nuclear reactors in Japan."

But some experts questioned the government's move.

"I am all for the government's shutting down all nuclear reactors in Japan, but in this case there was no legal basis for its action," said Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear expert and professor at Kyoto University.

Critics said the government had failed to explain how it reached its decision.

"The government's decision-making process is a black box," said Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the influential business lobby Nippon Keidanren. "All we get to hear is the result."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Hall is a Tokyo-based freelance writer.

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