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De facto phaseout

March 9, 2012

A Japan without nuclear power used to be unthinkable. Yet since the Fukushima accident, most of its plants have been temporarily shut down. The government would like to power them up again, but the public isn't so sure.

A protester in protective mask holds a placard during an anti nuclear rally in Tokyo
Image: dapd

In the year since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan's use of nuclear energy has dropped dramatically. Just two of the country's 54 reactors are currently operating. While a year ago 30 percent of the country's enormous demand for energy was met by nuclear power, right now it is supplying less than 3 percent.

Unlike Germany, Japan has not officially turned its back on nuclear energy. The plants have been shut down one by one for their regular maintenance, but instead of being powered back up again, they're stuck in limbo with local governments resisting the restarts.

Smoke billows from the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station
The meltdown at the Fukushima plant has led some to question Japan's reliance on nuclear powerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The power plants have passed "stress tests" set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the country is reforming its own nuclear energy authority. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said Japan will remain dependent on nuclear energy until at least 2030 and his government is seen as keen to get some of the plants running before the last two are scheduled to by shut down by the end of April.

"We surely hope to regain the public's trust," Noda was quoted as saying in the New York Times, "but in the end, restarting the reactors will come down to a political decision."

Despite the successful stress tests, Ken Morita, a spokesman with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), told DW that nuclear safety was something that must be worked on continuously.

"I cannot say I am satisfied with the current safety situation," he said.

Local governments dig in their heels

An opinion poll cited by the news agency Reuters found last year that three-quarters of the public favor at least a gradual exit from nuclear power. The mayors of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto are all calling for a rethink on nuclear and have written to the country's second largest utility Kansai Electric Power Co. to create a plan to switch other energy sources.

An anti-nuclear power protest in Tokyo
Local governments and the Japanese public are reluctant to switch the plants back onImage: AP

"In light of the March 11 incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant…should a critical incident hit Kansai Electric Power Co.'s region…it is clear that citizen's lives and economic activities would be greatly affected," the mayors said in a statement. "We should therefore create a power supply system not dependent on nuclear power as early as possible."

Meanwhile, activists in Tokyo have collected signatures to force a referendum on using nuclear energy to power the capital city.

Environmental costs

Despite initial fears, Japan's energy supply has not fallen apart.

The lights worked, the trains kept running and the country's industrial sector continued to chug along. Industrial production was actually up in December by as much as 4 percent, according to the economics ministry, and is expected to grow another 2.5 percent in January and 1.2 percent in February.

The cost, though, of continuing along with so little nuclear energy is enormous. The resource-poor country is again importing massive amounts of crude oil to make up the difference.

Although some operators have started up several thermal power plants that had been turned off, Japan is far from switching to any significant dependence on renewable energy. The true test is still yet to come this summer when businesses and private homes turn on their air conditioning.

Japanis now producing significantly more greenhouse gases than before the Fukushima incident. Japan had committed in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its greenhouse gases by 6 percent by this year. Instead the country's emissions are increasing 0.2 percent a year.

Author: Alexander Freund / hf
Editor: Hans Spross