By Elaine Kurtenbach
TOKYO: Japan once again went without atomic energy as its only operating nuclear reactor went offline Sunday for refueling and maintenance, and other plants remained closed for intensified safety checks following the 2011 meltdowns at the tsunami-stricken plant in Fukushima.
But despite signs that the Fukushima crisis is worsening, Japan’s commitment to restarting many of its 50 idled reactors appears stronger than ever, a year after a previous government said it would begin to phase out nuclear power completely.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December, said nuclear power remains essential, even with a surge in generation capacity from solar, wind and other renewable sources, and that the world’s No. 3 economy cannot afford the mounting costs from importing gas and oil.
Four nuclear plant operators have applied to restart a dozen reactors under revised safety guidelines, though the pace will be relatively slow, with the first expected to come online early next year at the earliest. Inspections take about six months for each reactor, and obtaining consent from local governments may also take time.
Only two reactors have been operating in Japan since July 2012, both at Ohi in the west. The No. 3 reactor went offline for maintenance on Sept. 2, and the No. 4 reactor was shut down Sunday night. They are among the dozen that have applied to restart.
The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the worst atomic accident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, prompted a rethink of plans to raise nuclear capacity from one-third to over half of total demand.
Even with little to no nuclear power, Japan has managed to avoid power rationing and blackouts. Industries have moved aggressively to avoid disruptions by installing backup generators and shifting to new sources, such as solar power.
Recent disclosures that the Fukushima plant is still leaking radiation and struggling to handle contaminated water used to cool its reactors have raised alarms over whether the situation is as fully under control as Abe says.
Even if Japan’s nuclear plants are allowed to restart, many will soon reach their 40-year operating limits, raising the issue of whether and how they will be replaced. Meanwhile, the disposal and security of nuclear waste are issues yet to be resolved.
Still, the government appears certain to scuttle the commitment to end the use of nuclear power gradually that was made a year ago under a different administration.
While surveys indicate the public remains opposed to nuclear power, the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands after the Fukushima disaster have diminished, perhaps sapped by the pain to the pocketbooks of Tokyo households now paying 30 percent more for electricity than before, with more rate increases to come.