Japan Threatens to Restart Nuclear Power Plants

Japan is on course to restart its nuclear reactors, which have been off-line for safety inspections since the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

As a result of the Fukushima disaster, Japan's 50 nuclear power plants were taken offline for safety checks.

Before the Fukushima accident, Japan was the third-largest consumer of nuclear energy, followed by the U.S. and France and deriving 13 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Japan is also the world's third largest economy, according to the UN. And nuclear power plants generate about 30 perccent of Japan's energy needs. During the shutdown of its nuclear power plants, utility companies have turned to coal, oil and gas to supply electricity to industries and households.

Additionally, Japan is the world's largest importer of liquified natural gas (LNG) (18 percent of energy); the second largest importer of coal (22 percent) and the third largest net importer of oil (42 percent).

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been in office since December, has pushed for a restart of Japan's nuclear reactors.

His policy contrasts starkly with that of his predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who stated in his first speech on Sept. 2, 2011, that Japan would continue to phase out nuclear power plants, building neither new plants nor extending the licenses of existing plants. But he also announced that existing nuclear power plants would be restarted after safety checks.

On Monday, four operators of nuclear power plants filed for inspection with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), in order to restart 10 reactors at five plants, including at Hokkaido, Kansai, Kyushu and Shikoku.

The NRA approved continued operation of two units at Kansai Electric's Ohi Nuclear Power Plant, which took effect yesterday. Operators of two more reactors are anticipated to file later this week.

The nuclear power plants are subject to safety tests and have to upgrade plants to ensure that they address the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis. Not all are convinced the measures are enough or the oversight is applied thoroughly.

Aileen Mioko Smith, Executive Director of Green Action, a Japan-based organization working to end nuclear power in Japan, said, "The NRA has taken the lead in ignoring compliance with its nuclear regulatory rules which have been created to apply the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident, thus setting a dangerous precedent for 'bending the rules' and repeating the Fukushima accident."

Prentice Woo from Greenpeace says, "Japan could easily end its reliance on the nuclear energy and become a renewable energy leader, given the abundance of renewable energy resources. In fact, it could outdo these modest goals."

In 2011, together with the European Renewable Energy Council, Greenpeace published the 2nd edition of its report "The Advanced Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable Energy Outlook for Japan." The document outlines three possible scenarios for Japan's energy future: 1. business as usual; 2. a nuclear phase-out and switch to renewables; and 3. a rapid switch from nuclear reactors, keeping them closed, and a transition to renewables.

According to Jan Beránek of Greenpeace International, who was involved with authoring the report, "If Japan takes the third outlined pathway, it could generate up to 43 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020."

Having shut down the majority of its nuclear power plants bodes well for Japan's ability to phase out nuclear energy and shift to renewables. But it remains to be seen whether the Japanese government will continue undeterred with its plans to restart nuclear energy.