Japan once again will be without atomic energy as its only operating nuclear reactor was to go offline Sunday for refueling and maintenance, and other plants remain closed for intensified safety checks after the 2011 meltdowns at the tsunami-stricken plant in Fukushima.
But despite signs that the Fukushima crisis is worsening, Japan’s commitment to restarting many of its 50 idled reactors appears stronger than ever, a year after a previous government said it would begin to phase out nuclear power completely.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December, says nuclear power remains essential, even with a surge in generation capacity from solar, wind and other renewable sources, and that the world’s No. 3 economy cannot afford the mounting costs from importing gas and oil.
Four nuclear-plant operators have applied to restart a dozen reactors under revised safety guidelines, though the pace will be slow.
Only two reactors have been operating in Japan since July 2012, both at Ohi in the west. The No. 3 reactor went offline for maintenance Sept. 2, and the No. 4 reactor was to be shut down Sunday night.
The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the worst atomic accident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, prompted a rethink of plans to raise nuclear capacity from one-third to over half of total demand.
Even with little to no nuclear power, Japan has managed to avoid power rationing and blackouts.
Recent disclosures that the Fukushima plant is leaking radiation and struggling to handle contaminated water used to cool its reactors have raised alarms over whether the situation is as under control as Abe says.
Still, the government appears certain to scuttle the commitment to end the use of nuclear power gradually that was made a year ago under a different administration.
The issue is cost, and to a lesser extent, concern over a resurgence in climate-changing carbon emissions due to increased use of coal and oil to generate power.