Spike Japan

After the earthquake: A long, hot summer


With some 30,000-50,000 dead, half a million evacuees, and the gravest nuclear crisis in decades (albeit one that Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, Sir John Beddington, has I think rightly characterized as a “sideshow”), the events of 3/11 are in many ways an order of magnitude greater than the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and in all probability the worst natural catastrophe ever to strike a developed nation.

But Japan has bounced back swiftly from natural disasters before—is there any reason to expect this time to be any different? Here I explore one reason to be less than sanguine, the loss of power generation capacity at Tokyo Electric Power, more familiarly known as TEPCO, the hapless operator of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

TEPCO is one of the world’s largest utilities, with 28.6mn customers, and it serves a population of 44.6mn people, not only in Tokyo, but also in the greater Kanto plain area—specifically the prefectures of Tokyo, Chiba, Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama, Yamanashi, Kanagawa, and a chunk of Shizuoka. The area contains more than a third of Japan’s population and accounts for some 40% of its GDP.  

On Thursday, March 10, TEPCO had theoretical total capacity of 74.9mn kW. How much actual capacity does it have now? To find the answer to that, we have to look in detail at what capacity has been taken out by the earthquake and tsunami.

First and foremost obviously comes Fukushima Daiichi (“number one”). It is reasonable to assume, he writes with considerable understatement, that it is not going to return to frontline service anytime soon (and also reasonable to assume that units No. 7 and No. 8 at Daiichi—I bet you didn’t know about those—will not be built by 2013-2014 as scheduled). 

Fukushima Daiichi
No. 1 – 460,000 kW
No. 2 – 784,000 kW
No. 3 – 784,000 kW
No. 4 – 784,000 kW
No. 5 – 784,000 kW
No. 6 – 1.1mn kW
Total: 4,696,000 kW

Second comes Fukushima Daini (“number two”), the newer cousin of Daiichi, just 10km or so south down the coast.

Fukushima Daini
No. 1 – 1.1mn kW
No. 2 – 1.1mn kW
No. 3 – 1.1mn kW
No. 4 – 1.1mn kW
Total: 4,400,000 kW

While the eyes of the world has been on Daiichi, Daini was also inundated with a tsunami greater than it had been designed to withstand and had difficulties achieving cold shutdown (what experts in all things nuclear we have all become), although this status was attained for all four reactors by the morning of March 15.

If Daini ever resumes service, it will not be by this summer. The template for recovery here is the third of TEPCO’s trio of major nuclear plants—and the world’s largest—Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, on the Sea of Japan coast in Niigata Prefecture, where it might be said TEPCO’s capacity woes really began, with the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake of July 2007.

No. 1 – 1.1mn kW
No. 2 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 3 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 4 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 5 – 1.1mn kW
No. 6 – 1.356mn kW
No. 7 – 1.356mn kW
Total active: 4,912,000 kW
Total theoretical: 8,212,000 kW

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was hit by shaking from the earthquake beyond the level it was designed to withstand and although it powered down without too much ado, the government mandated seismic upgrades. It took 21 months before the first reactor, No. 7, returned to operation. Currently reactors No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 are still out of commission. From this we can safely assume, even setting larger political considerations aside, that Fukushima Daini will be out of service for years rather than months.

Finally in the nuclear round-up comes Tokai No. 2 (Tokai No.1, which was Japan’s oldest nuclear power station, was effectively withdrawn from duty in 1998). Tokai is on the Pacific coast in an eponymous village in Ibaraki Prefecture. As with Fukushima, it was hit by a tsunami, albeit a smaller one, which knocked out one of its three diesel generators, and it took until March 15 to achieve cold shutdown.

No. 2 – 1,100,000 kW

So of TEPCO’s theoretical nuclear power capacity of 18,408,000 kW, it lost 10,196,000 kW on March 11 and has just 4,912,000 kW of actual capacity, or 27%, left.

But there’s more bad news to come, for the earthquake and tsunami also took down a large chunk of TEPCO’s conventional power capacity. Hirono, which is on the Fukushima coast about 10km south of Fukushima Daini, was hit by a tsunami, presumably—details are sketchy—one with similar height and power to that which inundated Daini.

No. 1 – 600,000 kW
No. 2 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 3 – 1mn kW
No. 4 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 5 – 600,000 kW
Total: 3,800,000 kW
Total loss: 1,600,000 kW

Then there’s Hitachinaka, on the Ibaraki coast in the village of Tokai.

No. 1 – 1mn kW (down)
Total loss: 1,000,000 kW

Then there’s Kashima, again on the Ibaraki coast, this time in the eponymous city. Again, details are sketchy, but to judge from accounts of severe damage to the steelworks, which are close to the power plant, the prognosis cannot be that good.

No. 1 – 600,000 kW
No. 2 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 3 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 4 – 600,000 kW
No. 5 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 6 – 1mn kW (down)
Total: 4,400,000 kW
otal loss: 3,200,000 kW

Finally in the thermal round-up, there’s Higashi Ogishima, on the coast of Kanagawa in Kawasaki. This is in a relatively elevated location and likely to be stage a full recovery relatively rapidly.  

Higashi Ogishima
No. 1 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 2 – 1mn kW
Total: 2,000,000 kW
Total loss: 1,000,000 kW

So we can put the current loss of thermal power at 6.8mn kW, which is 16% of TEPCO’s total thermal capacity of 42.1mn kW, with 1mn kW likely to be restored fairly soon, but the remaining 5.8mn kW possibly out of action for six months to a year. That takes the total loss of nuclear and thermal power, discounting Higashi Ogishima, to about 16mn kW, or 21% of TEPCO’s theoretical capacity.

But that marks the end of the bad news, right? Not quite, no. Because of the lack of rain over the last six months to a year—it feels as though it has been an exceptionally dry winter, even by Tokyo standards—and a lack of power to fuel the pumps, TEPCO’s current hydroelectric generating capacity is a fraction of its theoretical capacity, just 800,000 kW (5.5%) against 14.6mn kW. That’s another 13.8mn kW missing, and the combined nuclear, thermal, and hydro shortfall mounts to 29.8mn kW, almost exactly 40% of theoretical capacity. There are also the more minor issues of damage to thermal facilities at power companies from which TEPCO buys electricity (estimated at 1.7mn kW) and thermal facilities undergoing routine maintenance, which cannot be restarted on a dime (3.4mn kW). All told, current TEPCO capacity—according to the company early in the week beginning March 14—is roughly 33mn kW, less than half of theoretical capacity.

That then is the hardly encouraging picture on the supply side. How do things look on the demand side? It’s callous, I know, to talk of good fortune in the timing of a disaster, but TEPCO—and by extension, Japan—can at least count itself lucky in that the events of 3/11 happened in March, which together with April, October, and November, is one of the months in which, for seasonal reasons, demand for electricity is lowest. Nonetheless, peak demand in the week beginning March 14 came in at around 41mn kW, which is why Tokyo and the wider Kanto region were subject to rolling power outages all week and a cold snap on March 17 led TEPCO to threaten large-scale blackouts without warning. Peak demand this coming July and August, in a normal year, would be around 55mn-60mn kW (it has peaked above 60mn in six of the ten years from 2000 to 2009, the all-time demand peak was registered on July 24, 2001, at 64.3mn kW, and TEPCO itself projects the three-day average summer peak at 57.55mn kW). With current capacity at least 40% short of that, something has to give, and in a very big way.

What options does TEPCO have to bridge the gap? At the time of the 2007 Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake, it bought in power from neighboring utility, Tohoku Electric, to the north. That is not going to be possible this time, because much of Tohoku has been laid waste to by the earthquake and tsunami. Tohoku Electric has seen one of its two nuclear plants, Onagawa, crippled by the catastrophe, is desperately short of power itself, and is going to be in no position to help. Hokkaido, further north, has spare capacity, but at an estimated 0.7 kW, it is barely a drop in a bucket, and there may be transmission and distribution issues, too—it’s not as though the electricity can be boxed up, put on a ferry, and carted across the Tsugaru Strait. Turning west, TEPCO is stymied by one of the quirks of Japan’s power distribution system: everywhere west of its operating range runs on a utility frequency of 60 Hz, whereas it, Tohoku, and Hokkaido operate on 50 Hz, a legacy of Tokyo’s 1895 decision to buy 50 Hz generation equipment from AEG of Germany and Osaka’s 1896 decision to buy 60 Hz equipment from General Electric of the US. There are a handful of frequency converter substations, but they can only handle 1mn kW and this is already included in TEPCO’s capacity.

Where else can TEPCO turn? It can—probably within months—fire up thermal plants undergoing routine maintenance (3.4mn kW), resume operation at long-idled, mainly oil-fired plants (2.8 kW), hike operating rates at still running thermal plants (3.3mn kW), and maybe buy in surplus electricity generated by companies (700,000 kW), taking supply capacity up around 43mn kW, still at best 20% shy of peak demand.

So adjustments will have to be made on the demand side to bridge the supply/demand gap. Already station escalators across Tokyo have been cordoned off as if they were strips of contaminated Fukushima soil, convenience stores are discovering that—who knew it—they had dimmer switches all along, and, as the neon fades, some are dusting off their copies of Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay in celebration of traditional aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows.

Air-conditioning is the sole reason that peak summer electricity demand is a third higher than off-peak spring and autumn demand. So turn off the air-conditioning, I hear you say. Easier said than done: life in a modern office building without air-conditioning when outside the mercury is climbing past 35°C would be about as inimical to humans as life on the surface of Venus. Factories producing silicon wafers and luxury cars cannot cope with wild fluctuations in temperature. It looks as though the long-suffering consumer will be asked yet again to endure the unendurable, to sweat for victory to keep the offices purring and factories humming, although blackouts are necessarily undiscriminating—while TEPCO will no doubt do its utmost to ring-fence central Tokyo from outages, there will inevitably be disruptions to production and consumption.

This, then, is the base-case scenario. It’s easy enough to come up with a best-case scenario, in which incantations for precipitation go answered by the gods (there are no gods in a base-case scenario) and the baiyu plum rains of June and July prove bountiful, at least some knocked-out thermal power is restored promptly and TEPCO scrapes through summer on a wing and a prayer, stretched to the very borders of capacity. And in the worst-case scenario, the rains fail, the government orders Kashiwazaki-Kariwa shut for safety inspections, summer is a scorcher, and massive unannounced blackouts engulf Honshu from Tokyo north to the tip of the Shimokita peninsula.

In the early days after the earthquake and tsunami, the dismal scientists rushed out entirely predictable forecasts of a little dent to GDP in the first half of the year but a pickup, led by reconstruction, in the second half—why, they declared, oblivious perhaps to Bastiat’s broken window fallacy, the disaster would be good for the Japanese economy. Why, they declared, the three most afflicted prefectures, Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate, only account together for about 4% of GDP. The prospect of power cuts stretching indefinitely into the future across half of Honshu may now give them pause for thought. It is at least conceivable that TEPCO and Tohoku Electric will not have sufficient capacity to cope with peak demand for years to come. The limits of electric power capacity are something facing many developed nations, including the US and the UK, although in their cases it stems from decades of underinvestment. Japan has just been catapulted toward those limits first. Welcome—with a magnitude 9.0 jolt—to the future.