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Japan switches off its last nuclear reactor

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski.

For Japan, a country that staked its (low-carbon) energy future on nuclear power, yesterday was full of humbling symbolism. Hokkaido Electric Power Company shut down Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor (Reuters).

Some celebrated and raised their voices in support of a non-nuclear future (AP). Some despaired, saying that the economy, already struggling under the weight of an unprecedentedly strong yen, cannot handle higher energy costs (CNN).

Just two years ago, Japan introduced ambitious plans that would at once drastically cut its reliance on overseas fuel imports (constituting some 80% of its energy) and reduce carbon emissions by 25% of 1990 levels by 2020. The key was to add a fleet of 14 state-of-the-art, high-powered nuclear reactors to its arsenal of 54 ageing ones (see ‘Japan plans nuclear power expansion‘).

But over the past 15 years, the public’s faith in the nuclear-energy industry has been strained by a series of sometimes shocking lapses in the nuclear reactor safety. In 2007, an earthquake that damaged a reactor site drew attention to the fact that Japan’s reactors, some of which were some 40 years old, were not necessarily built to standards high enough to withstand the threats predicted by seismologists.

Japan’s central government’s efforts to convince coastal residents that the risk of having new reactors near their villages was worth the gain to the country have failed.

And that was all before the Fukushima crisis.  That disaster destroyed 4 of the 54 reactors, released some 8 x 1017 becquerels of radioactivity into the environment, killed several workers at the reactor, exposed several hundred workers to levels of radiation surpassing legal limits, and caused yet unknown damage to the health of workers and residents (one report estimates 1,000 extra cases of cancer). The degree to which the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government, with its faulty regulatory system, should share the blame is still being negotiated.

Today, nobody seems to think that any more reactors will be built. The 50 still-functional ones are all shut down for maintenance. After such periodic maintenance work, they would normally have been rubber-stamped back into operation by local officials. The reactors are, after all, important parts of the local economies. But after Fukushima, they face more stringent safety tests and, more importantly, more suspicion from local residents. When the first reactor will go back online is not clear. Business elites say that it should be soon, if the economy is to avoid severe damage.

Despite this, Japan’s environment agency recently came out with an ambitious target of reducing the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050, albeit with no clear idea of how it might be achieved.

Ahead of us is the summer of 2012, and many commentators say that this might be the moment of truth. Last year, there was a massive reduction in energy demand, made possible through the impressive efforts of residences, universities, businesses, and local governments devoted to saving energy. But that was during a relatively cool summer, in the wake of a disaster that focused everyone’s attention, and in the midst of an economic downturn that reduced energy demand. Even then, many were clearly not happy in their sweaty rooms and stultifying staircases. Will the will to conserve flag? Some energy companies are trying to add economic incentives to goodwill conservation efforts (Japan Times).  Some in the power industry, as well as advocates of nuclear energy, seem almost to relish an August in which the Japanese who reject nuclear energy outright may well see what a nuclear-free Japan really looks like: hot, sweaty and dark.

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