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article imageJapan prepares to end nuclear power generation

By Robert Myles     Sep 15, 2013 in Environment
Japan stands on the threshold of being the first major economy to do without nuclear power. Today, Sunday, sees the start of a process of switching off Japan’s last working nuclear reactor.
The Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPC) will, today, commence winding down No. 4 reactor at the Oi nuclear plant located in Fukui prefecture in western Japan. The switch-off at Oi is for the purposes of a scheduled inspection but, significantly, no date has been scheduled for re-powering the plant’s No.4 reactor.
The wind-down in Japan’s nuclear power program largely results from public attitudes in Japan hardening towards nuclear power since disaster engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant on March 11, 2011. An earthquake in the western Pacific was swiftly followed by a massive tsunami that smashed into Japan’s eastern seaboard. Several of Fukushima’s reactors suffered serious damage as a result. The remaining reactors at Fukushima, one of the 15 largest nuclear power plants in the world, were taken off-line in the months following the tsunami.
When KEPC flicks the switch to shut down the remaining operational reactor at Oi today, Japan will draw its power entirely from non-nuclear sources for only the second time since the country’s first nuclear reactor was commissioned in 1966. In the aftermath of Fukushima, all of Japan’s 50 commercial reactors were shut down in May 2012 to enable safety checks to be carried out. Public opposition to nuclear power meant that very few reactors were restarted.
The shutdown sequence at Oi is expected to start Sunday evening, local time. The remaining reactor will stop power generation after several hours and come to a complete halt early Monday, according to KEPC.
Will the last nuclear plant shutdown in Japan switch off the lights?
While nuclear power generation in Japan has the support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, public opposition is undiminished. If anything, attitudes in Japan towards nuclear power have hardened as fears grow that leakages of contaminants from Fukushima are heading out of control. TEPCO, the operators of Fukushima, have been heavily criticised for failing to adequately deal with the problem of contaminated groundwater. Contaminated water has continued to leak into the Pacific Ocean despite efforts being made to increase storage capacity at the stricken nuclear plant.
Some Japanese government officials and power companies expressed fears that Japan having to depend on non-nuclear power sources will cause power outages as demand for electricity climbs during the winter months. So far, the country has been able to cope, but Japan’s trade balance has taken a hit as the resource-poor country has been forced to rely on imported fossil fuels to fill the energy gap. Higher electricity prices for Japanese consumers have resulted. Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear plants supplied roughly one-third of Japan’s energy needs.
Post-Fukushima, the focus was on a legacy of radiation spread over a wide area, displacing thousands of local residents (160,000 according to Greenpeace) who may never return to their homes within the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant. But some see Fukushima and Japan’s nuclear power-down as a water-shed in how an advanced economy copes without nuclear power.
Greenpeace welcomed the shutdown of Oi’s No. 4 reactor as “excellent news,” advocating clean and sustainable energy as being the only route affording protection from the dangers of nuclear power. In Fukushima’s wake, the campaign group highlighted that Japan is already on course to become a world leader in renewable energy in the fields of wind, solar and geothermal power generation.
The country’s particular geographical position, with a coastline stretching for thousands of miles, means that possibilities for wave and tidal power are almost limitless. Japan also receives more than its fair share of solar radiation offering scope for further development of solar power as part of the renewable energy mix.
As Fukushima has shown, being situated close to a major geological fault line can mean that the construction of nuclear plants is, at the very least, inadvisable. But the corollary of being situated close to an earthquake zone means that Japan is ideally placed to take advantage of geothermal sources for heat and energy production.
Fukushima cannot be undone, at least not for decades. But a consequence of the disaster may be that, just as the Japanese people forever formally renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation in terms of its post-World War II constitution, so it is not inconceivable that Japan may become the first major economy to formally renounce nuclear power.
Related articles:
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Fukushima two years on — The plight of 300,000 displaced Japanese
Fukushima: TEPCO admits link between nuclear disaster and suicide
Greenpeace says Fukushima radiation monitoring seriously flawed
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