Japan yesterday began switching off its last operating nuclear reactor for an inspection, with no date scheduled for a restart amid strong public hostility toward atomic power.
The move will leave the world’s third-largest economy without atomic energy for the second time since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis erupted in March 2011.
Nuclear power supplied about one-third of the resource-poor nation’s electricity before a tsunami knocked out cooling systems and sparked meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing tens of thousands to flee their homes.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has openly supported a return to the widespread use of atomic energy, but the public remains largely opposed on safety grounds.
Kansai Electric Power Co (KEPCO) yesterday started gradually to take offline the No. 4 reactor at its Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.
“The work started at 4:40pm,” a company spokesman said. “The reactor will come to a complete stop early tomorrow.”
Japan previously was without any nuclear energy in May last year, when all of the country’s 50 commercial reactors stopped for checkups in the wake of the disaster. Utilities were unable to immediately restart them due to public opposition.
It was the first time in more than four decades that Japan had been without nuclear power.
Government officials and utilities voiced concern at the time that Japan could face major blackouts without nuclear power, particularly in the west, which relied heavily on nuclear energy.
Their fears proved unfounded, but the government last year gave Kansai Electric approval to restart No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi plant, saying that nuclear energy was necessary to meet increased electricity demand during the winter.
The reactors were reactivated in July last year and resumed full commercial operation the following month, but the No. 3 reactor was shut down earlier this month for a scheduled inspection. The nation’s other reactors have remained idle.
Utilities this summer submitted applications to restart their reactors with the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which has significantly upgraded safety standards since the Fukushima crisis.
The central government and utilities will seek the consent of local governments and communities hosting nuclear plants before any future restarts.
The No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture in the southwestern Shikoku region may come back online early next year, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper said.
The Asahi Shimbun said the reactor at Ikata might resume operation in “the coming winter.”
Greenpeace Japan said the country must seize the opportunity of being without nuclear power to focus on promoting renewable energy.
“Having zero running nuclear reactors is proof that we do not need nuclear plants,” Greenpeace Japan said in a statement on Friday.
However, utilities have called for the swift restart of reactors to ensure stable electricity supplies.
“In order to maintain stable supplies, we believe it is necessary for nuclear to play its role” as a key energy source, Federation of Electric Power Companies in Japan chairman Makoto Yagi said on Friday.
He is also the president of Kansai Electric.