Japan’s last running nuclear reactor is scheduled to go dark on Saturday, marking an extraordinary turnaround for a country that just over a year ago was one of the world’s most eager proponents of atomic energy.
The complete shutdown of the country’s 50-strong reactor fleet leaves Japan without nuclear power for the first time since 1966, in a stark demonstration of how severely last year’s devastating accident in Fukushima has shaken the public trust.
It is unclear how long the nukeless moment will last: Most of the country’s reactors had been halted for routine maintenance, but then left offline while their safety was reviewed. The Japanese government is pushing hard to restart two units in western Japan before energy demand peaks in the summer, warning of power shortages if all the reactors, which produced roughly 30 percent of the country’s electricity, stay offline.
Still, both proponents and opponents of nuclear power agree that Japan has seen a sea change in sentiment since the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi blew radioactive particles over much of the northeast and forced the evacuation of about 150,000 people.
“There is no clear nuclear-energy policy now,” says Tetsuya Endo, a former diplomat who has held top posts at nuclear organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission. “We’re at a turning point.”
Before the accident, Japanese energy policy called for a “nuclear-powered nation” that encouraged the funding of new reactors and that planned as much as 40 percent of its electricity from atomic energy by 2030.
The energy agency listed five reasons for “why nuclear energy is necessary” – from the scarcity of domestic energy sources, which supply only 4 percent of demand, to the cutthroat global “competition for resources.”
Post Fukushima, the agency pulled that nuclear-energy policy from its website, and the government says it is hoping to come up with a new one this summer. Japan’s ruling party has said it now aims to reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear energy.
Some of Japan’s older reactors, or those situated in the most earthquake-prone spots, may never get approval to restart, while widespread distrust of the country’s nuclear regulators and operators is threatening to derail or delay plans to bring even the newest units back online.
Even if some of Japan’s reactors eventually restart, “May 5 is the beginning of the end,” says Iseko Shirai, a 76-year-old antinuclear activist who has been spending her days camped out in a tent in front of the industry ministry, and is on a hunger strike until the final reactor goes offline on Saturday.
Japan’s embrace of the atom was spearheaded in 1954 by Yasuhiro Nakasone, the future prime minister and Atomic Energy Commission head, who pushed through the country’s first JPY 250 million ($3.1 million) budget for nuclear power. It was less than a decade after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japanese policy makers had to tread a delicate balance between public fear of radiation and the desire for a domestic supply of energy, says Endo.
The global oil shortages of the 1970s lessened that ambivalence, Endo says. Policy makers and politicians saw nuclear energy as a way to free the country from dependence on expensive imported fossil fuels.
“We realised that if we continued to import oil that our country would collapse,” recalls Takashi Kawamura, chair of Hitachi Ltd, a big manufacturer of nuclear reactors and equipment. “We realised that we would need a new framework for energy, and then we all reached the conclusion that we should do nuclear energy. And now we’ve undone all of that.”
Japan is now boosting purchases of gas and oil to make up for the loss of nuclear energy, buying JPY 4.7 trillion worth of liquefied natural gas in 2011, one- third more than in the previous year. “If we can restart the reactors, then we can use that JPY 4 trillion for something else,” says Kawamura. “It really brings a tear to my eye when I think back to those days of the oil shock.”
Meanwhile, Japan is feeling the absence of its reactors in everything from threatened power shortages and electric-rate increases to strained power grids.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., 9501.TO -2.55 percent the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant and one of the earliest utilities to feel the crunch from the loss of its reactors, last year rushed to restart old thermal-powered plants and to lease electricity-generating equipment. The company says it is now ready to handle the summertime surge in energy demand.
But the system is a fragile one. Old plants require more-frequent checks to make sure nothing is in danger of breaking down. Since it can’t afford to shut down plants for long, Tepco is asking maintenance crews to speed things along by working double shifts. Some repairs that were typically done during the week, are now performed at night and on weekends, when power demand is lower. Communities are being asked to host extra generators on an emergency basis, says Masanori Minami, a manager in Tepco’s thermal-power department.
Minami has the job of talking to those communities where Tepco is locating its extra generators, where he is often asked how long these emergency measures are going to last. He says he is stumped in offering an answer. “We don’t know what the supply and demand is going to look like if the nuclear reactors don’t come back online,” Minami says. -By Phred Dvorak and Eleanor Warnock