TOKYO May 4 Japan shuts 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.
The shutdown leaves Japan without nuclear power for the
first time since 1970 and has put electricity producers on the
defensive. 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."
Japan 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 operated at
night and during weekends 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," said DeWit. "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.
One by one the country's nuclear plants have been shut for
scheduled maintenance and prevented from restarting because of
public concern about their safety.
The last one running, the No3 Tomari reactor of Hokkaido
Electric Power Co in northern Japan, is scheduled to
shut down early on Sunday. Anti-nuclear activists will celebrate
with demonstrations over the weekend.
The last time Japan went without nuclear power was 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
A year on, the level of public concern about the safety of
the industry is such that the government is still struggling to
come up with a long-term energy policy, a delay having a
profound impact on the economy and underlining just how costly
it will be to contemplate a nuclear-power-free future.
Having boomed in recent decades on the exports prowess of
big brands like Sony, Toyota and Canon, the economy suffered its
first trade deficit in more than three decades in 2011 as power
producers spent billions of dollars on oil-and-gas imports to
fuel extra generation capacity.
At the time of the Fukushima crisis, then Prime Minister
Naoto Kan called on Japan to wean itself off of nuclear power.
Up to that point, Japan had been planning to lift the share of
nuclear generation to over 50 percent by 2030 from about 30
The government of current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has
softened Kan's call. Noda says Japan can not afford to be
nuclear free, although he still holds that as an ideal.
But the government has no clear timetable for getting
nuclear power back up and running as it tries to navigate the
public opposition -- rare in Japan -- and the demands of
business that wants a stable supply of power.
Cabinet ministers last month rushed to try to win over 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
The public remained unconvinced. A poll by Kyodo news agency
last weekend showed about 60 percent of the public opposed to
restarting the two reactors.
Most mayors and governors whose communities host nuclear
plants want safety assurances beyond government-imposed stress
tests before agreeing to restarts, a Reuters poll showed in
To overcome the opposition, some politicians have been more
forceful. Yoshito Sengoku, the acting president of the ruling
Democratic Party of Japan, o n April 16 called an abandonment of
nuclear energy the equivalent of "mass suicide," Kyodo news
reported. His comment was criticised by Chief Cabinet Secretary
Osamu Fujimura, indicating internal divisions over how to handle
Trade Minister Yukio Edano - the government's point man for
energy policy - walks a fine line, saying both that safety must
come first while trying to win the support of local communities
Kansai Electric Power Co, the utility most reliant on
nuclear power, and some other electricity producers have warned
of power shortages this summer but have largely avoided lobbying
publicly for restarts for fear of a backlash.
Ultimately, some argue Japan's economy, already weakened by
years of deflation, would suffer if reactors are not restarted.
"It's not an option Japan should take. There will be less
employment and the economy will be on a shrinking trend," said
Takeo Kikkawa, a professor at Hitotsubashi University.
Japan's liquefied natural gas imports climbed 18 percent in
volume and 52 percent in value to 5.4 trillion yen ($67 billion)
in the year through March.
Renewable energy, although given emphasis in energy policies
being formulated, is not expected to be much of an immediate
salve. Energy from renewable sources account for about 10
percent of Japan's power generation, most of that from
hydroelectric dams. Wind and solar together contribute about 1
Worldwide, there has been a shift with Germany, Italy and
Switzerland moving away from atomic energy, prompting the
International Atomic Energy Agency to revise down its forecast
for growth in the industry.
The United States, China and India are still planning to
increase the number of reactors.
In Japan, a delay in setting up a new, more independent
Nuclear Regulatory Agency due to deadlock in a divided
parliament is further clouding the outlook.
Some analysts say the government is not going to turn public
opinion unless it admits that nuclear power is never going to be
"The debate needs to be recast," said Bob Geller, a
professor of geophysics at Tokyo University. "They have to come
clean, and say, in effect - look we know they're not perfectly
safe but we've made a careful evaluation of the risks, which
we'll make public."
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota, Linda Sieg, Osamu
Tsukimori and Risa Maeda in Tokyo: Editing by Edwina Gibbs and