Japan Switches Off Last Nuclear Power Plant, Just over a Year after Fukushima

The country scrambles to bring renewable sources online in the wake of last year’s nuclear disaster.

Japan announced that it plans to shut down its last working nuclear power reactor this weekend just over a year after a tsunami scarred the nation and if it survives the summer without major electricity shortages, producers fear the plants will stay offline for good. Photo: yolaglloq/Flickr

It is going to be the first since 1970 when Japan will remain without nuclear power and has put electricity producers on the defensive.

What is more, some experts predict that public opposition to nuclear power could become more deeply entrenched if non-nuclear generation proves enough to meet Japan’s needs in the peak-demand summer months.

“Can it be the end of nuclear power? It could be,” said Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo who studies energy policy. “That’s one reason why people are fighting it to the death.”

As Reuters writes, the country managed to get through the summer last year without any blackouts by imposing curbs on use in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

Factories have had to operate at night and during weekends in order to avoid putting too much stress on the country’s power grids. A similar success this year would weaken the argument of proponents of nuclear power.

“They don’t have the polls on their side,” DeWit explained. “Once they go through the summer without reactors, how will they fire them up? They know that, so they will try their darndest but I don’t see how.”

Japan has 54 nuclear power reactors, including the four at Tokyo Electric’s Daiichi plant in Fukushima that were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami, culminating in three meltdowns and radiation leaks for the worst civilian nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

All the plants had to be shut one by one for scheduled maintenance and prevented from restarting because of public concern about their safety.

The last one working, the No3 Tomari reactor of Hokkaido Electric Power Co in northern Japan, is scheduled to shut down early on Sunday.

The last time when Japan faced the same situation occurred in May 1970, when the country’s only two reactors operating at that time were shut for maintenance, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan says.

Nuclear power provided almost 30 percent of the electricity to keep the $5 trillion economy going before the March 11, 2011 disaster that killed almost 16,000 people and left more than 3,000 missing.

Last month Cabinet ministers tried to convince the public to allow the restart of two nuclear power reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co’s Ohi plant in western Japan, in what experts said was a recognition of the implications of a nuclear-free summer.

However, the attempt failed. A poll, conducted by Kyodo news agency a week ago, showed about 60 percent of the public opposed to restarting the two reactors.

Yoshito Sengoku, the acting president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, on April 16 compared an abandonment of nuclear energy to “mass suicide.” His comment was criticized by Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, indicating internal divisions over how to handle the issue.

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