Japan is shutting down the last of its 50 nuclear reactors, for checks, just over a year since the Fukushima leaks. Officials warn of an electricity crunch, but an increasingly vocal Japanese public opposes restarts.
Technicians at Japan's last functioning nuclear power plant have begun shutting it down for checks in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, as public suspicion becomes more evident despite official warnings of summertime power shortages.
The shutdown, which involves inserting control rods into the number-three reactor at Tomari on the northern island of Hokkaido, is due to be completed by Sunday. To be fired up again, reactors must now pass International Atomic Energy Agency stress tests.
Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's announced two reactor restarts at the Ohi nuclear plant in central Japan in mid-April, local residents and administrations have blocked this using new consent procedures. Overall, no reactor stopped for maintenance has gone back up.
Tomari's operator, Hokkaido Electric Powers, said on Saturday that the shutdown would take six hours. Routine maintenance would start on Saturday night. Sunday will be Japan's first nuclear power-free day since May 1970.
Anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo
In Tokyo on Saturday, just hours ahead of the scheduled Tomari shutdown, 5,000 anti-nuclear advocates demonstrated outside Japan's industry ministry, demanding that Japan's former one-third dependence of nuclear power be consigned to history.
"A new Japan with no nuclear power has begun," asserted Gyoshu Otsu, a Buddhist monk. "A lot of people are still suffering."
Opposition Social Democratic Party head, Mizuho Fukushima, speaking during the rally, said Japan should set a global precedent. Last year's nuclear accident must be the last "not only in Japan but all over the world, " he said.
Three reactors at Fukushima spewed radiation after a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Swathes of land can no longer be farmed. Tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes - some of whom may never be allowed to return.
Utilities warn of shortages
Utilities such Hokkaido Electric Power which runs the Tomari plant as well as Kyushu Electric Power which supplies central western Japan have warned of summertime electricity shortages, especially from air conditioning consumption.
However, the environmental campaign organization Greenpeace says supply is not endangered. Its spokesman Hisayo Takada said recent warnings that another big earthquake could strike seismically prevalent Japan meant that nuclear technology could not be trusted.
The news agency Kyodo released poll results in late April showing that 59.5 of those questioned oppose a restart of the idle Ohi nuclear power plant. Only 26.7 percent were in favor.
Japan began nuclear power generation in 1966. Advocates say reverting instead to oil and gas contradicts years of effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
ipj/ng (AFP, dpa, AP)