Japan Nuclear reactor

Japan has restarted the first nuclear reactor since the country shut down all of its reactors in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant last year. The 1,180-megawatt reactor No. 3 at the Kansai Electric Power Co Inc (TYO:9503) Ohi nuclear plant, northwest of Tokyo, returned to operation, despite massive public opposition.

Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, in north-eastern Japan, went into meltdowns and exploded following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011. The tsunami destroyed the backup generators used to keep the reactor cores cool, causing the reactors to overheat. Over hundred thousand people had to be evacuated from near the plant area, though no cases of death or sickness due to radiation were reported.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda last month ordered the restarts of reactors No.3, and the nearby No.4, following so-called “stress tests” based on those in the European Union. The government has argued that a return to nuclear power was essential to bolster the economy and prevent power shortages over the summer that could cause blackouts. In the wake of last year’s massive earthquake, all of Japan’s 50 working reactors were gradually turned off. Japan had relied on nuclear energy for about one-third of its electricity needs, and the decision to restart the two reactors was welcomed by business heads. But many ordinary citizens have complained that Noda disregarded their safety concerns.

Protest demonstrations across the country have grown over time, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Tokyo last Friday, and later surrounded Noda’s residence in central Tokyo, to protest the return to nuclear power in Japan. Despite assurances by the government over safety of the nuclear reactors, the citizens are far from convinced, and argue that a move to alternative energy sources would have been more prudent. In a survey carried out by the American think tank, Pew Research Center, seventy percent of the respondents favored a reduction of the country’s dependence on nuclear power. Even seismologists have warned that restarting the two reactors could prove ominous, because of the high likelihood of more such devastating earthquakes.

Ignoring the massive public outcry, the government went ahead and approved the restart of the two reactors. Kansai Electric Power Co Inc (TYO:9503) said it expected sustained nuclear reaction to begin by Monday morning, and supply of electricity should resume by Wednesday.

Japan is facing a severe power glut, and oil imports are soaring. The decision to restart the reactors was practical, but in a country prone to earthquakes and tsunami, the long-term future lies in searching for alternative energy sources.