Dozens of protesters shouted and danced at the gate of a nuclear power plant that was set to restart yesterday, the first to go back online since all of Japan’s reactors were shut down for safety checks following the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster.
Ohi nuclear plant’s No. 3 reactor is returning to operation despite a deep divide in public opinion.
Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the restarts of reactors No. 3 and nearby No. 4, saying people’s living standards cannot be maintained without nuclear energy. Many citizens are against a return to nuclear power because of safety fears after Fukushima.
Crowds of tens of thousands of people have gathered on Friday evenings around Noda’s official residence, chanting “Saikado hantai,” or “No to nuclear restarts.” Protests drawing such numbers are extremely rare in Japan, reputed for its society’s orderly docility and conformity. A demonstration in Tokyo protesting the restart and demanding Noda resign was also being organized in a major park yesterday.
Although initially ignored by mainstream local media, demonstrations across the country have grown, as word gets out through social media sites such as Twitter, sometimes drawing Japanese celebrities, including Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed the score for Last Emperor.
All 50 of Japan’s working reactors were gradually turned off in the wake of last year’s earthquake and tsunami, which sent the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant into multiple meltdowns, setting off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. However, worries about a power crunch over the hot summer months have been growing. Oil imports are soaring. Officials have warned about blackouts in some regions. The Japanese government has been carrying out new safety tests on nuclear plants, and says the Ohi plant’s No. 3 and No. 4 reactors are safe for restart.
Kansai Electric Power Co, the utility that operates Ohi, in central Japan, was not immediately available for comment. It said on its Web site that a nuclear reaction was to start at the No. 3 reactor yesterday, a key step to start producing electricity.
Protesters like Taisuke Kohno, a 41-year-old musician among the 200 protesters trying to blockade the Ohi plant, are not so sure. He said protesters were facing off against riot police and planned to stay there day and night.
“It’s a lie that nuclear energy is clean,” he said. “After experiencing the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how can Japan possibly want nuclear power?”
Japanese public opinion turned vehemently against nuclear power after the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan went into meltdowns after the March 11 tsunami destroyed backup generators to keep reactor cores cool.
In the latest problem at the crippled plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), its operator, said it was still working to restore the cooling system for the pool for spent nuclear fuel at reactor No. 4, which broke down on Saturday. The cooling system must be restored within 70 hours, or temperatures will start to rise, spewing radiation. TEPCO spokesman Naohiro Omura said a temporary system was being set up yesterday.
The pool contains 1,535 fuel rods, 204 of them unused ones. Even spent fuel remains highly radioactive. The government has acknowledged that the spent fuel pool, if it cannot be kept cool, will cause a massive radiation leak that may require the evacuation of the Tokyo area.