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Japanese fear enforced summer energy cuts in nuclear power crisis

After tsumami knocked out power plants, families take the stairs, turn out lights and go to bed earl for now: but summer heat will test self-restraint and soon 'it will be nearly impossible to live without air conditioning.'

City lights and billboards are turned off in Tokyo's Shibuya fashion and nightlife district. The Japanese government credits individuals' power-saving tactics for allowing a temporary halt to planned blackouts in the capital.
City lights and billboards are turned off in Tokyo's Shibuya fashion and nightlife district. The Japanese government credits individuals' power-saving tactics for allowing a temporary halt to planned blackouts in the capital.

TOKYO // The tsunami that smashed into Japan's north-east coast last month, killing as many as 25,000 people and knocking out nuclear power generation, has transformed this usually bright, bustling metropolis into a dark, humbler version of itself.

Running the country;s capital on eco-mode in the cool spring invites few complaints as citizens bundle up, leave work early, and go to bed around sunset. Escalators are still, trains run without air conditioning, and night-time baseball games have been suspended. Many say any complaints are hollow compared to the deprivation and destruction further north.

"Shikata ga nai", a popular stoic phrase meaning "it can't be helped", is frequently on people's lips.

But as the sticky, hot summer, with daily highs in the mid-30s°C, approaches and the normally persevering Japanese reach for their aircon remotes, the government is bracing for electricity demand to jump.

"I think it will be nearly impossible for Japanese people to live without air conditioning," said Atsuhiko Sudo, 32, a filmmaker.

The government is asking industries that rely on electricity generated by Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of a crippled nuclear power plant in the north-east, to come up with plans by the end of April to cut energy use even more in preparation for summer.

The tsunami knocked peak power generation capacity at the utility known as Tepco from around 52 million kilowatts down to 31 million kilowatts. About 5 million kilowatts of capacity has been restored at conventional plants, and the government estimates that restarting more of them will bring capacity to 45 million kilowatts by July. But demand from Tepco customers is expected to rise to between 55 million and 60 million kilowatts from July to August.

About 9 million kilowatts of capacity could be gone for ever as the Fukushima nuclear plant is likely to be scrapped and the future of the halted Dai-ni plant is uncertain. That suggests chronic shortages until new plants are built. A government plan for the power supply that might include plant construction is to be announced at the end of April.

"This disaster should be called a national crisis," said Hiromasa Yonekura, the chairman of Nippon Keidanren, a business association. "The country has to pull together to overcome it."

The group has decided to co-ordinate power reduction among its members, which include the country's largest corporations.

The usage cut expected from companies operating in and around Tokyo is likely to be large - as much as 25 per cent. Office buildings are among the largest consumers of electricity, according to the government, but the area is also home to factories run by Nissan Motor and Nippon Steel.

"If we don't have power, we can't make cars," said Mitsuru Yonekawa, a Nissan spokesman.

For carmakers, the power crunch comes amid a severe parts shortage because many suppliers in the north-east were wiped out or stopped operating because so many of their employees were killed.

Tokyo residents, meanwhile, are resorting to a variety of individual power-saving tactics, which the government credits with helping make up more than half the shortfall so far and has led to a temporary halt to planned blackouts.

Yuichiro Kanda, 40, a system engineer, said his company is firmly behind its "two up, three down" policy of taking the stairs instead of the lift for short trips.

When power cuts hit his family of five in their suburban Saitama home between 6pm and 10pm, they ate and jumped in the bath before lights out. "Then we just went to sleep," he said.

Non-stop television commercials, run by a consortium of private companies called AC Japan, exhort people to switch off lights and not hoard items in short supply, such as bottled water.

Waka Imamura, 21, a wedding planner, has been finishing her work early as her company has slashed overtime, in part to cut power use. She sleeps by bundling up in extra layers of clothing rather than use her heater. But she worries about the mass effect of all the self-sacrifice, normally an honoured trait.

"If we exercise too much self-restraint, it could really hurt Japan's economy," she said. "But we must do what we can to save electricity. I hope things will return to normal as soon as possible."