Start Your Engines: Japan Gets Ready to Return to Nuclear Power

The debacle at the Fukushima nuclear plant last year prompted Japan to switch off nuclear power. Now the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda plans to restart two reactors, much to local and international opposition

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images

Protesters hold banners outside the Japanese Prime Minister's residence, decrying nuclear power and the proposed restarting of Oi nuclear plant, situated in Japan's Fukui prefecture, on April 6, 2012 in Tokyo.

Japan appears to be on the verge of restarting two of its nuclear reactors after the mayor of the town of Oi, where the reactors are located, gave the government his approval. Currently, all 50 of Japan’s functioning reactors are offline for maintenance or safety checks after the Fukushima nuclear crisis that began on March 11. The Oi reactors were the first to be cleared by the central government under the new safety guidelines designed after March 11. But not everyone is satisfied they’re sufficient to prevent another nuclear disaster from happening in the event of another major earthquake or tsunami.

The government’s push to restart the Oi reactors has become an increasingly divisive issue in recent months. The administration says Japan needs nuclear power, which before March 11 supplied a third of the nation’s energy, to keep the economy up and running, and cannot afford to keep importing gas and oil on the scale it is today. Opponents to the restarts are skeptical of the government’s commitment to ensuring the safety the nuclear industry with its strong ties to power, and point to the fact that the country has been functioning without its reactors since the last went offline in May.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has put his political life on the line over the issue.  Earlier this month, Noda made a personal appeal to the nation to accept the restarts of reactors 3 and 4 in Oi, which are operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. At a June 8 press conference, he said:

My conviction is that it is the ultimate responsibility of the Government to protect the lives of the people. Specifically, this has two meanings. The first meaning of “to protect the lives of the people” is that we must never let an accident like Fukushima happen, for the sake of the children who will be responsible for the next generation as well. … The second meaning is that we must avert any adverse impact on our daily lives caused by such matters as the impact of planned power outages and sharp increases in electricity prices as much as possible. In order to lead prosperous and decent lives, cheap and stable electricity is indispensable. Japanese society will not be able to function if there is a decision to permanently halt nuclear power generation, which has accounted for approximately 30% of our total electricity supply, or if nuclear power generation remains halted.

He has a lot of convincing to do. Nearly a third of the lawmakers in his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) signed a petition just days before speech asking him to reconsider his stance. In a May poll by the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, 54% of respondents said they were opposed to the restarts, while 29% supported them. Other polls show even higher levels of opposition, with 71% of respondents saying they do not want to see a “hasty” restart in Oi. Critics who do not flat out oppose the use of nuclear energy in Japan — and there are plenty of those — argue that restarting any reactors before the full cause of the meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which are still under investigation, is premature.

The government has responded to criticism of its muddled handling of last spring’s nuclear crisis by proposing a new independent commission to oversee Japan’s nuclear power industry. The six-member commission would be voted on by the Diet, and have the final say over the Prime Minister in all actions taken in the event of another nuclear emergency on the scale of Fukushima. That bill is expected to be passed in the current session.

The government still needs the approval of the governor of Fukui prefecture, where Oi is located, to restart those reactors. According to Japanese press reports, Governor Issei Nishikawa is expected to give the greenlight by the end of the weekend after endorsing new safety guidelines for the reactors last week. Once Nishikawa says go, the reactors could start operations in roughly three weeks time.