TOKYO Japanese utility Hokkaido Electric Power Co began shutting the country's last active nuclear reactor on Saturday, leaving the world's third-biggest user of atomic energy with no nuclear-derived electricity for the first time since 1970.
A crisis at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where an earthquake and tsunami in March last year triggered radiation leaks, has hammered public faith in nuclear power and prevented the restart of reactors shut down for regular maintenance checks.
Hokkaido Electric said it started lowering output from the 912-megawatt No.3 unit at Tomari nuclear plant in northern Japan at 04:00 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT).
The maintenance on the unit is set to begin at around 10:00 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) when power generation falls to zero, with the unit to be shut down completely by the early hours of Sunday.
The shutdown means all of Japan's 50 reactors have been taken off line, marking the country's first nuclear power-free day since May 1970.
Trade Minister Yukio Edano and three other ministers have been trying to win the support of communities to reactivate two idled reactors at Kansai Electric Power's Ohi nuclear plant to help ease expected power shortages of nearly 20 percent in coming hot-weather months.
The two Ohi reactors are the first to be considered for reactivation by the central government, but it faces an uphill battle of winning public support.
Kansai Electric's expected deficit for this summer was the highest among four Japanese nuclear plant operators that forecast shortfalls when demand peaks in the summer.
The last time Japan was nuclear power-free was for five days to May 4, 1970, when the two reactors then existing were shut for maintenance, according to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.
(Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)