The Japanese government on Monday called on businesses and the public in the Tokyo area to cut electricity use, saying a lack of generating capacity risked plunging the capital into a power blackout.
The blackout alert, the second this year after a warning issued in March, is likely to revive contentious debate about restarting Japan’s nuclear plants ahead of elections to the upper house of parliament in July.
The power crunch comes as countries worldwide reassess the need for nuclear plants following curbs on Russian gas exports caused by the war in Ukraine.
Japan’s energy policy has been in paralysis since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 prompted the shutting down of most of its nuclear reactors, which previously supplied about a third of the country’s electricity. The suspension of nuclear generation has deepened Japan’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels even as it pledges to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European countries have also restarted old coal-fired power stations as an emergency measure. But some countries are reconsidering plans to shut down existing nuclear plants amid concerns about rising emissions.
With public opposition in Japan still strong, taking up the nuclear issue ahead of the July 10 upper house election would be politically risky for prime minister Fumio Kishida. But experts say the electricity shortage is likely to intensify the debate if the ruling Liberal Democratic party achieves a commanding electoral victory.
“The government is running out of options,” said Noriaki Oba, energy analyst and founder of Post-oil Strategy Institute.
“With the electricity shortage coincidentally happening before the election, there are people who think the issue can be taken forward if the election result is strong,” Oba said. But he cautioned that any resolution of the nuclear stand-off would require restoration of public confidence and reassessment of the safety screening of nuclear plants.
The ministry of economy, trade and industry asked businesses and residents in Tokyo and surrounding areas to reduce power usage, saying supply was particularly tight in late afternoon on Monday. The ministry asked households and companies to set their air conditioners higher than 28C. It said the public should avoid using irons and other power-hungry appliances.
Temperatures in the Tokyo area rose above 35C following a record-early end to the annual rainy season.
The warning, which was also issued for Tuesday, came after power reserves in the area were expected to fall below 5 per cent of total capacity. Between 4pm and 5pm, the ratio of electricity demand to supply capacity was forecast to hit 96 per cent, according to regional utility Tokyo Electric Power Company.
In March, that ratio reached 103 per cent after a strong earthquake in north-eastern Japan caused several thermal power plants to suspend operations.
The situation is less severe than in March since more electricity can be generated from solar panels during the sunny summer months. But tight supplies are expected to continue as the heatwave increases the use of air conditioners.
In an interview with the Financial Times in early June, the chief executive of Nomura, Kentaro Okuda, highlighted the threat of blackouts in Tokyo as one of a handful of signs Japan was entering a “new paradigm” that would force the government and companies to rethink how to manage change.
“If [a blackout in March] had happened, manufacturers could not have continued. So we need to make investments into new energy, and consider alternatives. We may need to invest in climate tech . . . new supply chains and business chains will need to be created,” said Okuda.