Japan's Nuclear Energy Industry Nears Shutdown, at Least for Now
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OHI, Japan -- All but two of Japan's 54 commercial reactors have gone offline since the nuclear disaster a year ago, after the earthquake and tsunami, and it is not clear when they can be restarted. With the last operating reactor scheduled to be idled as soon as next month, Japan -- once one of the world's leaders in atomic energy -- will have at least temporarily shut down an industry that once generated a third of its electricity.
With few alternatives, the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has called for restarting the plants as soon as possible, saying he supports a gradual phase-out of nuclear power over several decades. Yet, fearing public opposition, he has said he will not restart the reactors without the approval of local community leaders.
Japan has so far succeeded in avoiding shortages, thanks in part to a drastic conservation program that has involved turning off air-conditioning in the summer and office lights during the day. It has also increased generation from conventional plants that use more expensive natural gas and other fossil fuels in a nation already uneasy about its reliance on foreign sources of energy.
The loss of nuclear power has hurt in another way: economists blame the higher energy prices for causing Japan's first annual trade deficit in more than three decades, which has weakened the yen and raised concerns about the future of the country's export-driven economy. And as the weather warms, Japan faces a possible energy crisis, considering that last summer it still had 19 nuclear plants in operation.
On a more fundamental level, the standoff over nuclear power underscores just how much the trauma of the Fukushima accident has changed attitudes in Japan, long one of the world's most committed promoters of civilian atomic energy. Political and energy experts describe nothing short of a nationwide loss of faith, not only in Japan's once-vaunted nuclear technology but also in the government, which many blame for allowing the accident to happen.
"March 11 has shaken Japan to the root of its postwar identity," said Takeo Kikkawa, an economist who specializes in energy issues at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. "We were the country that suffered Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but then we showed we had the superior technology and technocratic expertise to safely tame this awesome power for peaceful economic progress. Nuclear accidents were things that happened in other countries."
Hoping to allay the safety concerns of local communities, the government has asked plant operators to conduct so-called stress tests: computer simulations designed to show how the reactors would hold up during a large natural disaster like the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that disabled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where three reactors melted down after the cooling systems shut down. But many local leaders say the stress tests are not enough, and want additional proof that the government has learned the lessons of the Fukushima accident.
The contest over the future of atomic energy in Japan is unfolding in this fishing town of 8,800 residents, 550 miles southwest of the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi plant and areas contaminated by its fallout. Two of the reactors at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant were the first to finish the stress tests, making it a crucial test case of whether Japan's nuclear plants can be restarted.
The sprawling plant here was not damaged by the earthquake or tsunami but sits idled anyway because of a standoff caused by a legal quirk: Japanese law requires reactors to be shut down every 13 months for routine checkups, which typically take three or four months. But over the last year the plant's operator, Kansai Electric Power, has been forced to shut down all four of the plant's reactors, unable to restart them because of opposition from local residents.
"After seeing what happened in Okuma, Futaba and Iitate, we cannot just turn these things back on," said Shinobu Tokioka, the mayor of Ohi, naming evacuated communities near the Fukushima plant. He said he thought the reactors would eventually be turned back on because his and other host communities need the plant-related jobs and other revenues.
In many respects, Japan is already on the road to recovery from the huge earthquake and tsunami, which killed as many as 19,000 people, and to a lesser degree from the nuclear accident. The northeastern coastal towns that were flattened by the waves have cleaned up millions of tons of debris and are beginning to rebuild.
But it is the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi that looks likely to have a more lasting impact, even though it has yet to claim a single life. Japan is just beginning what promises to be a radiation cleanup that will last decades of the evacuated areas around the plant, where nearly 90,000 residents lost their homes. The nation is also groping to find effective ways to monitor health and protect its food supply from contamination by the accident, which government scientists now say released about a fifth as much radioactive cesium as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Then there are the new feelings of distrust in technology and in the government, which many Japanese now blame for hiding the true dangers of the nuclear accident. At the same time, this resource-poor nation also knows that it has few realistic alternatives to nuclear power, at least in the short term.
This has left many Japanese torn about whether to continue using nuclear power. These conflicting feelings are apparent in host communities like Ohi, a once-impoverished town that has prospered from the jobs and the $450 million brought by the nuclear plant since the 1970s. After first installing indoor plumbing for most residents and improving roads, the town moved on to flashy public works projects, and now boasts a hot springs resort, a sports complex with an indoor pool and lighted baseball diamond, and an indoor children's playground featuring a full-size mock sailing ship on a sea of rubber balls.
It is a similar story at other communities along this stretch of coast in western Japan's Fukui Prefecture, which is known as Nuclear Alley because it has three other plants in addition to the Ohi plant.
"We had allowed ourselves to become addicted to nuclear money, until Fukushima broke the spell," said Tetsuen Nakajima, 70, the abbot of Myotsuji, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple in Obama, a city next to Ohi. He said he now feared for the ancient temple's safety from the nearby plants.
So far, the stress tests appear to have done little to ease public concerns, in part because they were begun before investigators had even reached conclusions about what actually caused the meltdowns at Fukushima. Last month, nuclear regulators responded with a list of 30 "lessons" from last year's accident.
In an interview, Ohi's mayor, Mr. Tokioka, said the list was not enough, and repeated his demand for new guidelines even though writing them might take months.
"The national government has to show us that it has learned from the mistakes at Fukushima Daiichi," said Mr. Tokioka, 74.
At the same time, Mr. Tokioka said he thought the reactors would eventually have to be turned back on, especially if the shutdown begins to hurt the local economy or disrupts electrical supplies. Other residents expressed similarly conflicted feelings.
"No one wants to go back to living the same way we did 50 years ago, without cellphones or TVs," said Mitsuyoshi Kunai, a 54-year-old fisherman who tended his nets just a few miles from the Ohi plant. "Fukushima showed us that nuclear power is dangerous, but we still need it."
First Published March 9, 2012 12:01 am