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Ohi nuclear power plant is seen after its No. 3 rector, right, returned to operation in Ohi town
Image: ap

Japan's atomic energy

July 5, 2012

After having remained off the grid for months, Japan's nuclear power plants are being reactivated again. A reactor has already started running while the anti-atomic energy protest in Japan is on the rise.


All of Japan's 50 nuclear power plants were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The first reactor has now gone back on the grid, highlighting the highly contradictory nature of Japan's post-Fukushima energy policy. A further example of this contradiction is the fact that while reactors 3 and 4 of the nuclear power plant at Ohi in central Japan have been found to be safe enough to get running again , other nuclear power plants will get the green light only after the new Nuclear Regulatory Agency - which is no longer under the purview of the economy ministry - begins it work late this summer.

Anti-nuclear protesters attend a rally in Tokyo
Anti-nuclear protest has not ebbed in JapanImage: REUTERS

The reactors at Ohi are run by the energy giant TEPCO, which supplies Osaka and its surroundings with electricity. The main reason why the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda gave the go-ahead to activate the Ohi reactors was to ensure the power supply to the Osaka region during the critical summer months without any major shortfalls.

Increasing opposition

Critics of the government's decision point to the fully insufficient infrastructure in case another catastrophe should occur. The evacuation zone around the nuclear power plants has been increased from 10 to 30 kilometers, but there's an acute shortage of evacuation routes, geiger counters and medical supplies in almost every zone, as the officials of the concerned prefectures complain.

Meanwhile, opposition to nuclear energy continues to grow among the Japanese population. Noriyuki Wakisaka of the Ashahi Shimbun daily estimates the anti-nuclear tendency in the population at being between 70 and 80 percent. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the premier's office in Tokyo towards the end of June to protest against the restarting of the reactors. As Wakisaka told DW, "There are as many 'angry citizens' here today as in Germany, but no political party which can take advantage of this mood. Discontent is on the rise, young people are behind the protest but it is not ideological."

A radiation monitor indicates 102.00 microsieverts per hour at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, February 20, 2012
The counter ticks even after a year of FukushimaImage: REUTERS

Three scenarios

Wakisaka cannot be moved to make a prediction regarding the future of Japan's energy policy. Noda has not thrown in his lot with the opponents of nuclear power as clearly as his predecessor Naoto Kan. Noda tends to be more benevolent towards the interests of the energy suppliers.

This summer, the government is going to present three scenarios regarding the proportion of electricity won from nuclear power plants by 2030: a complete withdrawal from atomic energy, 15 percent or 20-25 percent atomic energy. The decision will be the result of a consensus on the basis of a loose national debate - which already signifies a major change of direction.

"The Japanese government is not speaking about getting rid of atomic energy. The aim is to reduce the dependence on atomic energy," Markus Tidten, a Japan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told DW. His guess is that the proportion of electricity won from nuclear power plants will be around 20 percent in the medium run. After all, that proportion was nearly 33 percent before Fukushima.

Expensive and sluggish

Japan's biggest energy supplier and nuclear power plant operator TEPCO declared at its shareholders' meeting last week that the experience of taking 50 nuclear power plants off the grid in Japan had shown that it would cost an unbelievable amount of money to change over to fossil energy simply to keep the industry going. "A very costly business," as Tidten commented.

Tidten sees the logic behind the Japanese state's acquiring a major share in TEPCO as an attempt to preempt public anger in case the one or the other reactor had to be restarted - the public would tend to trust the government slightly more than an industrial corporation. But an actual shift in the energy policy of the land of the rising sun was still nowhere in sight.

Author: Hans Spross /ac
Editor: Sarah Berning

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