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July 10, 2013 9:14 AM Why Does Japan Need to Restart Its Nuclear Power Plants?

By Tina Gerhardt

JapanNuclear

Japan is on course to restart its nuclear reactors, which have been off-line for safety inspections since the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, as the tsunami’s waves made it impossible for the emergency generators, intended to cool the reactors, to work.

As a result of the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s 50 nuclear power plants were shut down for safety checks.

Before the Fukushima accident, Japan was the third-largest consumer of nuclear energy, deriving 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During the shutdown of its nuclear power plants, utility companies turned to coal, oil, and gas to supply electricity to industries and households.

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

His predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, stated in his first speech on September 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, Japan began procedures that would bring nuclear power reactors back online, inviting nuclear power plants to file applications to restart generators. Four operators of nuclear power plants filed for inspection with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), 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 earlier in the week.

The nuclear power plants have to conduct safety tests and to upgrade plants to ensure that they address the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis.

Despite these measures not all are convinced a restart is a good idea. Issues include unresolved plans for Fukushima residents who cannot return home due to radioactive contamination, lacking oversight in inspections and costs. Last month, between 30,000 and 60,000 demonstrators formed a ring around the Diet Building, as they did last summer, rallying against nuclear energy.

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.

Jan Beranek, of Greenpeace International, who was involved with authoring the report, said “The fact that Japan continued to function even without those reactors for a long time is a clear evidence that they are not needed. The government should take more steps to enable a larger uptake of clean and safe renewable energy technologies, which are fit to fully replace the country’s nuclear fleet and part of its fossil fuels within this decade.”

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.

Tina Gerhardt is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation and The Progressive.
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