For the first time since 1970, not a single electron on the Japanese power grid comes from fission reactors. On Saturday, May 5, 2012, engineers began inserting control rods to bring the fission process to an end at the third and final Tomari reactor. Until last year’s earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdown, Japan got 30% of its electricity from nuclear power plants.
Whether Japan stays nuclear-free is not clear. The national government has not given up on nuclear power, and it has declared two reactors at the Ohi plant in the western part of the country safe. These could be brought back on line if regional authorities give their blessings. The local authorities don’t have an outright veto, but the consensual nature of the Japanese political culture makes it difficult to restart reactors without their support.
However, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has led to anti-nuclear protests, and the activists involved may make it difficult to secure approval for restarting any nuclear plant in Japan. The BBC’s Roland Buerk, in Tokyo, says the government could force the issue, but so far has been reluctant to move against public opinion. Organizers of an anti-nuclear march on Friday in Tokyo estimated turnout at 5,500. It’s not a huge number, but it’s large enough to make life difficult for nuclear power’s proponents.
This summer is going to be crucial, in my opinion, for the future of nuclear power in Japan. The Japanese have increased the importation of fossil fuels and restarted old power plants that use conventional fuels. Business leaders are already worrying openly about the effect the tight electricity supply will have on business, especially manufacturing. However, if the country gets through the next few months without severe blackouts, it will strengthen the argument that Japan can do without fission reactors.
Since the Fukushima accident, the Japanese have become more careful in their electricity use. The Mainichi Shinbum reported on its English language website, “While the maximum power demand in TEPCO’s [Tokyo Electric Power Company}service area fell an average of 19.7 percent during the government-ordered electricity usage restriction period between July and September last year compared to the same period the previous year, the maximum power demand continued to stay low even after the lifting of the restriction, falling an average of 9.7 percent in October and November compared to a year earlier. The maximum power demand was also 11.4 percent lower between April 1 and 23 this year compared to the figure recorded in 2010.”
Conservation is the least exciting form of going green, but what it lacks in sex appeal, it gains in immediacy. If the Japanese can conserve enough electricity and bring enough fossil fuel power onto their grid, they will be able to get through this summer without nuclear power. And that calls into question one of the nuclear industry's biggest talking points world-wide – namely that the getting rid of nuclear power is just not feasible.