As of Monday morning, the last working nuclear reactor in Japan had been turned off, ostensibly for inspection, but no firm restart date was set. For the forseeable future, the nation is entirely without nuclear power, and Japan is facing some difficult political and social choices. In the wake of the Fukushima nightmare, the Japanese public is nuclear-shy, while the current government is promoting a return to full nuclear capacity. The conflict between the two is likely to come to a head in the coming months as no fewer than four utilities have applied to restart their reactors.
After Fukushima, the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown in the 1980s, Japan’s rapid shutdown of numerous reactors made sense. Residents and the government alike were concerned about safety and wanted time to reevaluate their use of nuclear power. As of the summer of 2012, only two reactors were left active, with Japan turning to other sources for energy. Prior to the mass reactor shutdown, Japan was meeting around 33% of its energy needs from nuclear power. That’s a big gap to bridge with power from other sources.
Japan managed to up its use of renewable energy by 15%, but much of the energy needed to fuel the country’s resource-demanding industries and populace came from imported fossil fuels and other nonrenewable sources. That’s bad news for the planet, but also bad news for Japan, which was becoming dependent on imports that were escalating in price, driving costs up for consumers, too.
In Tokyo, for example, power bills rose by 30%, putting the squeeze on many residents, especially aging adults. Japan gets very cold in the winter, making high power bills a significant concern in low-income communities where people may be forced to turn the heat dangerously low to save money.
At the same time that power bills were rising, utilities were pressuring the government to allow them to restart nuclear plants, and residents were fighting back. Japanese people flooded the streets to protest nuclear energy while Fukushima continued bleeding radioactive water into the ocean and presenting an escalating series of challenges to cleanup crews. Anti-nuclear sentiment was even strong enough to lend Greens Japan real political teeth.
All of that is starting to change, however, as the cost of high utility bills takes its toll, a new government takes up the reins and Japanese utilities fight for restarts before their idled reactors are down so long that they’d require major maintenance work before being reactivated. While Japan may be nuclear-wary, and temporarily without any power from nuclear sources, it’s highly likely that reactors will be restarted as early as next year.
Even with a commitment to energy from alternative sources, Japan needs energy now, and it may be willing to pay a high price for it. In the wake of Fukushima, numerous reports indicated that the disaster wouldn’t have been as extensive if the plant had been properly inspected and maintained. While the Japanese people may be coming around to nuclear power again, they may be warier and ready to fight for better nuclear safety in the interest of protecting themselves and their communities.
Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol.