Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on Friday that Chubu Electric Power Co should halt all operations at its Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan, due to worries a strong earthquake could cause another nuclear crisis.
Kan, who has been under fire for his response to a nuclear crisis at another plant triggered by the March 11 quake and tsunami, added the government would try to prevent the halt of the Hamaoka nuclear reactors from causing power supply problems.
Companies served by two quake-affected utilities in Tokyo and the north have already been asked to curb electricity usage this summer when demand peaks. The shutdown at Hamaoka raises the risk of power disruptions in the Chubu region, home to Toyota Motor Corp and many other major manufacturers.
Kan said he made the decision "out of concerns for public safety," given an 87% probability forecast by government experts that an earthquake with a magnitude 8.0 would hit the area served by Chubu Electric within the next 30 years.
"If there were a major accident at Hamaoka nuclear plant, it would have an enormous impact on the entire Japanese society," Kan told a televised news conference.
The 3,617 megawatt Hamaoka plant accounts for about 7% of Japan's combined nuclear power generating capacity. It is located about 200 kilometres (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo and sits near an active earthquake zone.
Chubu Electric's President Akihisa Mizuno said in a statement that the firm will "promptly consider" the request. Kyodo news agency, citing a Chubu source, reported that the company would comply with the government's decision .
Last week, Chubu Electric said it was not committed to a July restart of the 1,100 megawatt No. 3 reactor, which has been shut since November for planned maintenance. The 1,137 MW No. 4 reactor and the 1,380 MW No. 5 reactor are currently operating.
If the No. 3 unit is shut through March 2012 and the shortfall is made up only with gas-fired plants, Chubu has estimated it would have to buy an additional 1.08 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas from abroad.
Nuclear power accounted for 14% of Chubu's total electricity generated in 2009/10, well below the 30% average nationwide, while gas thermal power accounted for 47% and coal thermal power 24%.
"This is a bold move by the Kan administration and I am very surprised they would go as far as to ask for a nuclear plant to be shut simply because an earthquake could occur in its vicinity sometime during the next 30-40 years," said Osamu Fujisawa, an oil economist at industry consultant FE Associates.
"Obviously Chubu's power generation costs will rise since they will have to use more oil and natural gas, but they will likely be able to secure enough power by restarting mothballed oil plants and buying electricity from other utilities."
Kan under fire
Local authorities have been concerned about safety at Hamaoka after the tsunami crippled cooling systems at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan, where engineers are struggling to contain the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
"There are expert opinions that geologically a tsunami would hit our prefecture even faster than it hit the Fukushima plant," Heita Kawakatsu, the governor of Shizuoka prefecture where the Hamaoka plant is located, said on Thursday.
Chubu, Japan's third-largest utility after Tokyo Electric and Kansai Electric Power , will complete steps to protect Hamaoka from a tsunami of the same scale as the March 11 one in two to three years, Japan's trade ministry said.
Trade minister Banri Kaieda, who in March ordered immediate steps to boost nuclear safety, said in a statement that operators have taken measures to ensure cooling system can keep working even if power is knocked out by a tsunami.
The trade ministry said that it would not ask other plant operators to shutdown following the approval of such steps.
Kan warned that some power shortages may occur in the summer when consumption peaks, but he believed that efforts by the public to save electricity could prove sufficient to avoid serious problems.
Kaieda told the same news conference that he doesn't think Chubu will need to conduct rolling blackouts due to the halt at the Hamaoka plant. He said Chubu could rely on thermal and hydro power sources to close the gap, and that he has also asked Kansai Electric to support Chubu by providing it electricity.
Kan has come under criticism for his response to the disaster that has killed 14,800 people, left some 11,000 missing and led to radiation leaks at Fukushima Daiichi.
Opposition parties that have the power to block bills in the divided parliament want Kan to quit and rivals in his own party are also keen to oust the premier, especially after a thrashing in local elections last month.
On Friday, heavyweight ruling party rival Ichiro Ozawa blasted the premier, saying the time had come to speak out.
Environmental group Greenpeace issued a statement welcoming Kan's decision on Hamaoka but urged him to shut more plants.
"This is the first time a prime minister has directly requested a nuclear plant in Japan be closed, however, it cannot be the last," said Junichi Sato, Greenpeace Japan Executive Director in the statement.