- By Region
In the northern Japanese coastal village of Tomari it is always big news when one of the reactors at the local nuclear power station goes offline. Reactor safety checks and routine maintenance bring an influx of workers and a much-needed boost to an area in deep economic decline.
But when Tomari’s No. 3 reactor shuts down late on Saturday night, the whole of Japan will be watching. For weeks, it has been the only one of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors in operation. When it goes offline, Japan will have to get by without nuclear power for the first time since 1970.
For some local residents, this landmark is cause for celebration. Anti-nuclear protesters plan a countdown party within sight of the plant on a remote coast of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Campaign posters talk of “making a new history” free of the perils of atomic power.
“This May 5 could become a major turning point for this country,” says Takeichi Saito, an activist who has waged a long battle against the plant as part of a local campaign group that had seen its membership fall in recent years to just three people.
The halting of Japan’s nuclear industry – though possibly temporary – certainly reflects a dramatic cooling in enthusiasm for the technology following the failure last year of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.
While the national government has yet to set a clear direction for the power sector, local authorities have blocked the restart of any reactor that was shut because of last year’s disaster or has since gone offline for routine checks.
The Fukushima crisis, which left areas around the plant heavily contaminated with radiation and prompted the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, has caused deep concern in villages like Tomari.
But many of those who live closest to atomic power stations fret even more about the economic implications of an extended shutdown.
A Fukushima Daiichi-style disaster would be the end of Tomari, says Masumi Shibuta, who helps his father run a modest guest house within sight of the power station. But he adds that the family business will go bust if local reactors are never restarted. “We need the plant,” Mr Shibuta says. “All we can do is pray that it never blows up.”
Many locals wonder if Japan can get by without nuclear power, which until last year accounted for about a third of the country’s electricity supply – and an even higher proportion in areas such as Hokkaido and the western Kansai region.
If summer temperatures this year are at the hot end of their typical range, electricity supply could fall 15 per cent short of peak-time demand in Kansai, according to government projections. On Thursday, Yukio Edano, industry minister, told local utility Kansai Electric Power to plan for possible rolling blackouts.
Business leaders are angry at the prospect of a second year of consumption cuts, disrupting production and providing another reason to shift output overseas.
There are other costs. Japan’s imports of liquefied natural gas, the main replacement for nuclear power, rose 18 per cent in the year to March. Higher LNG prices meant power companies suffered a 52 per cent jump in procurement costs to around Y5.4tn ($67.5m).
If no nuclear plants are restarted, Japan’s nine regional electric utilities face collective net losses of Y2.7tn this fiscal year, according to government estimates. And greenhouse gas emissions have risen sharply.
While such problems have prompted calls for reactors to be restarted, government efforts are complicated by the consensus-seeking nature of Japanese politics.
Many leaders in areas that host nuclear facilities are supportive, but opposition has grown in neighbouring regions that share the risks but receive fewer benefits.
Yoshihiko Noda, the prime minister, endorsed the restart of reactors at a plant in western Oi last month, but so far appears unwilling to override objections from leaders of nearby regions.
The public is also sceptical, despite government-ordered computer-based nuclear plant “stress tests” intended to ensure they could survive even the worst earthquake and tsunami. A recent poll by Kyodo news agency found 60 per cent of respondents against restarting the Oi reactors.
In Tomari a visitor centre boasting a free heated swimming pool and a plant mascot modelled on a concrete containment vessel, aims to reassure the public. “The centre was good fun for the kids,” said Nobuhito Kamada, a real estate worker from the Hokkaido capital Sapporo, who stopped by on a family trip on Friday. “But I don’t want nuclear power in Japan. The reactors should not be restarted.”