Japan was running without nuclear power for the first time in 42 years Saturday, as the final commercial reactor in operation was shut down for routine maintenance.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co. gradually started taking reactor 3 at its Tomari nuclear plant offline around 5 p.m., and operations completely halted by 11 p.m.
No reactors shut for regular scheduled checks have gone back online since the triple-meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power station in March 2011. All 50 of the nation’s viable reactors must now undergo mandatory two-stage stress tests to determine if they can resume operations, a measure introduced amid the nuclear crisis.
But the government and power companies also have to win approval in the court of public opinion, which has soured against atomic energy after the massive radioactive fallout emitted by the Fukushima facility’s crippled reactors, and the mass evacuations that ensued.
The government hopes to restart two idled reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture to prevent an electricity shortage this summer in western Japan, but the public remains wary, stung by one of the world’s worst nuclear crises.
The last time all of Japan’s commercial reactors were taken offline was between April 30 and May 4, 1970, just four years after nuclear power generation began. Back then, the country only had two operating reactors: one at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, and the other at its Tsuruga facility in Fukui Prefecture.
The number of viable commercial reactors dropped to 50 after reactors 1 to 4 at the Fukushima No. 1 complex were officially declared defunct.
Last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key members of his Cabinet decided that firing up the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi power station is essential to ensure a stable supply of electricity in the Kansai region in summertime.
Industry minister Yukio Edano, who oversees the operators of nuclear plants, has said the possibility of rolling blackouts can’t be ruled out if no atomic energy is available by then.
Nuclear power accounted for about a third of the nation’s electricity output before the Fukushima disaster, but plans had been drawn up for reactors to supply some 50 percent by fiscal 2030.
The government and utilities aggressively promoted atomic energy, touting its efficiency and arguing that nuclear plants help to curb global warming since they emit no carbon dioxide. They also introduced mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel and were pursuing a nuclear fuel recycling strategy to extract plutonium from spent fuel.
But the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe shattered these plans and forced the government to rethink its energy policy, now that the public has become well aware of the hazards of atomic power.
The crisis also led the government to implement more stringent safety measures for all of the nation’s reactors.
Last May, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan issued an unprecedented order to Chubu Electric Power Co. to idle its Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, because of projections that a massive earthquake will strike the area at some point. These quake predictions were hardly new, but after the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 facility they suddenly started to be taken far more seriously.
Work is afoot to build a much higher seawall at the Hamaoka plant to offer better protection against tsunami, since the massive waves triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake last March swept effortlessly over similar defenses at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The first stage of the reactor stress tests Kan’s administration introduced last July includes computer simulations to gauge the robustness of reactors against stronger-than-forecast earthquakes and tsunami. Under the new safety rules, reactors idled for scheduled inspections can’t resume operations unless they pass the first stage.
The test results for the two reactors at the Oi plant have already been endorsed by the nuclear industry watchdog, putting them at the forefront of the government’s push to get units back online.
But efforts to gain public support for restarting the Oi reactors have made little headway. Local government leaders near the plant, including the governors of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and the mayor of Osaka, are reluctant to agree to any restart.
A nationwide poll of 1,019 people conducted by Kyodo News from April 28 to 29 found that 59.5 percent of respondents oppose firing up the two reactors, while 26.7 percent are in favor.
The utilities powering the world’s third-biggest economy, meanwhile, have been forced to turn to thermal power generation to keep factories, offices and households supplied with electricity, incurring massive additional fuel costs in the process.
The oil and liquefied natural gas that utilities are currently having to procure to power thermal plants could result in higher electricity bills. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the stricken Fukushima No. 1 complex, has already hiked its rate for large-lot users by an average of 17 percent and hopes to raise household charges next.
On a local level, the prolonged and widespread halt of reactors has cast a shadow over the economies of municipalities hosting nuclear plants, where residents and businesses depend on them for much of their income.
However, it is still uncertain when the nation’s commercial reactors will be allowed to resume operations. Noda and three key ministers plan to make a formal decision on the Oi reactors after taking the views of local authorities and residents into account.