One of the thorniest problems facing Japan since last year’s Tohoku earthquake has been the question of what to do with its 54 operational nuclear reactors.
Before the disaster, these plants generated about 30% of Japan’s electricity, and there were plans to build another 14 reactors to increase the share of nuclear to 50% of the country’s overall power capacity by 2030.
Those plans are now in limbo. One by one, each of the country’s reactors has been switched off for routine maintenance, and has not been turned back on due to a dramatic shift in public attitudes to atomic energy.
On May 5, the country had its first nuclear-free day since 1970 after Hokkaido Electric Power switched off the last-remaining nuclear plant in operation. As with all the other reactors (except those at Fukushima), it is unclear when, or if, it will start producing power again.
The natural gas that Japan has had to import as a result meant that 2011 was the country’s first year of trade deficit since 1980, and the summer threatens another round of power shortages that the government would rather avoid. Last month, it tried to float the idea of restarting two reactors at Kansai Electric Power’s nuclear plant in Fukui to keep the air-conditioning running.
The idea failed to gain much support. A Kyodo poll showed that 60% of people were opposed to turning the reactors back on.
Our own online poll last week gave the opposite result, with 61% saying that Japan should turn its nuclear power stations back on.
Undoubtedly, fears about the effects of radiation still run high. During a visit to Tokyo earlier this year, we noticed the flagship Apple store in Ginza was selling a gadget that turns an iPhone into a fully functioning Geiger counter.
The level of concern is probably out of proportion to the risks, but part of the fear stems from a loss of confidence in the quality of the management of the country’s nuclear industry — rather than the dangers of nuclear power itself.
Restoring confidence is the key to re-booting the reactors, but the government has struggled to get its act together. The establishment of a new regulatory body is stalled in parliament, which has not helped in convincing the public that lessons have been learned.
The longer the reactors are off, the greater the chance they will not come back on again.