By the end of the week, Japan will run without nuclear power for the first time in nearly 50 years – an important factor shaping global demand for crude oil and natural gas.

Tokyo will shut down for inspection the country’s last operating nuclear reactor, Hokkaido Electric Power’s number 3 unit, at its Tomari plant in northern Japan, during the evening of May 5.

Japan has used nuclear power since 1965. Before the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi atomic plant, nuclear power accounted for roughly 28 per cent of all electricity in Japan.

Tokyo has said Japan will have to rely “momentarily” on other energy sources to produce electricity. These are liquefied natural gas, crude oil for direct burning and residual fuel oil.

As utilities last year met the shortfall of nuclear power, Japanese consumption of LNG rose by 56 per cent, crude oil for direct burning by 27 per cent and fuel oil usage by 20 per cent.

The trend, which is helping to keep spot LNG prices in Asia and global oil prices higher, is set to accelerate in the next few months as utilities burn more hydrocarbons to compensate for the lack of nuclear power.

Energy analysts say utilities have maximised LNG-fired electricity output, leaving crude oil and fuel oil to meet additional needs.

Oil traders believe that Japan’s nuclear cutback could add between 450,000 and 800,000 barrels a day to world demand for crude and fuel oil.

The figures are significant. The bottom end of the range equals the production of Ecuador and the upper end matches the output of Qatar.

Crude oil demand could be somewhat lower if electricity shortages reduce economic activity – a likely scenario this summer.

Japan had hoped to have several reactors back on line this month after initial stress tests ordered in the aftermath of last year’s disaster. But local opposition has delayed the restart.

The International Energy Agency, the oil watchdog of western countries, says a “no-nuclear scenario” could not be ruled out for Japan as public opinion, channelled through local governments, “remains sceptical concerning the nuclear industry”.

Local authorities so far have prevented the restart of the number 3 and 4 units at Kansai Electric Power’s Ohi nuclear plant, which were the first to pass the stress tests and approved by Tokyo.

Other local authorities have said they plan to oppose the restart of plants within their area even if the atomic generators pass the stress tests.

The Paris-based IEA assumes that some nuclear plants will be restarted in early August when electricity consumption usually peaks to meet air conditioning demand during Tokyo’s steamy summer months.

The agency’s two previous assumptions of some nuclear power coming back in August 11 and February 12 proved too optimistic.

Many in the oil and gas market believe that Japan may go without nuclear power this year, further tightening the global oil market and the regional LNG Asian market.

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