The Fukushima accident will achieve in the next few months what has eluded campaigners for decades: the closure of every one of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
The closures, prompted by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant a year ago, have continued as more reactors are taken offline for inspections. All must pass recently introduced two-stage “stress tests” and win local approval before they can be restarted.
If, as expected, the last two working reactors are shut down for maintenance by the spring, Japan will be left without nuclear-generated electricity during the sweltering summer months, when demand peaks.
The question is when, or if, the reactors will restart amid a hardening of public attitudes toward nuclear energy in the aftermath of Fukushima and a new enthusiasm for investment in renewable energy.
Many are skeptical of claims that the Fukushima accident was an aberration. A poll by the public broadcaster NHK showed that nearly 70 per cent of Japanese wanted to reduce or end the use of nuclear power, although another survey by the Nikkei media group showed support for the restart of reactors to meet short-term needs at 48 per cent.
Significantly, the Mainichi Shimbun this week became the first major newspaper to come out in favour of ditching nuclear power. “The illusion of nuclear power safety has been torn out by the root,” it said. “The Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed the great waves of March 11 last year made sure of that.”
Tomas Kaberger, a former director-general of the Swedish Energy Agency, who was appointed to lead a renewable energy foundation set up by SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son, believes the Fukushima accident has ruled out even a modest return to nuclear power.
“There is a lot of resistance in the existing power structures, but the combined desire for economic competitiveness and the public opposition to continue as before and in favour of more sustainable and efficient energy supply, I think, will win in the end,” he said. “It is only a matter of time.”
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said only that Japan needs to gradually reduce its dependence on nuclear energy and improve safety. Under pressure from industry leaders who say a power crunch could damage productivity, Mr. Noda is known to want some idle reactors to go back online as soon as their safety has been confirmed.
He has at least acknowledged that the government had been guilty of placing too much faith in the myth of safety surrounding nuclear power. “We can no longer make the excuse that what happened was unpredictable and outside our imagination,” he told foreign journalists last week.. “Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination.”
Japan, the world’s third-largest industrialized country, is paying a heavy economic price for the de facto phasing out of nuclear power: a dramatic rise in imports of oil and gas that not only threaten Japan’s climate-change goals but were behind the 2011 trade deficit, its first in more than three decades.
If none of the idle reactors is restarted by early May, Japan’s growing dependence on fossil fuels could add more than $30-billion a year to its energy costs, according to the government.
Before the Fukushima accident, a third of the country’s energy came from nuclear, and there were plans – abandoned after Fukushima – to boost that figure to more than 50 per cent by 2030 with the construction of new reactors.
But after the Fukushima accident passed its most critical phase, the government moved to address public criticism of the Tokyo Electric Power Company and industry regulators by announcing reforms to the utility’s management structure and creating a new nuclear watchdog – separate from the trade industry – that will start work this spring.
“The first step toward more government involvement in the nuclear industry is turning steps required [for]handling severe nuclear accidents into law and requiring utilities to adhere to them,” Environment Minister Goshi Hosono said last month. “I don’t think Japan will, or should, sacrifice the safety of nuclear power to ensure a stable source of electricity. Our stance needs to be that we will only allow the minimum number of nuclear reactors to operate under the extremely strict guidelines.”
Japan proved it could continue to function during the energy-saving regime enforced in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident. If, as Trade Minister Yukio Edano has suggested, it manages to last the summer without widespread power disruptions, more people will be asking why the temporary nuclear shutdown can’t be made permanent.