Japan’s nuclear energy industry nears shutdown, at least for now
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 nuke 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.
Experts describe nothing short of a loss of faith, not only in Japan’s once-vaunted nuclear technology but also in the government.
“March 11 has shaken Japan to the root of its postwar identity,” said Takeo Kikkawa, an economist who specialises in energy issues at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.