Despite widespread public opposition and lingering safety concerns, Japan on Tuesday will switch on a nuclear reactor for the first time since the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The restart of Reactor No. 1 at the Sendai nuclear plant, about 620 miles southwest of Tokyo, comes four and a half years after an earthquake-triggered tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, leading to the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. In the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis, which led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people, all 43 of the country's operable commercial nuclear reactors were taken offline.
Last fall, the Sendai reactors became the first to clear safety hurdles imposed by a revamped Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), established after Fukushima. More than two dozen other reactors have applied for a restart. All are now subject to the NRA's safety checks before they can come back online.
Tuesday's restart represents a victory for pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who insists that the Japanese economy needs nuclear energy to supplant expensive oil and gas imports. Earlier this year, the Japanese government set a goal for nuclear power to provide more than 20 percent of the country's energy needs by 2030.
But Abe, whose general approval rating has plummeted, has yet to convince his constituents. A public survey published this month by Japan's Mainichi newspaper showed 57 percent of respondents weren't in favor of restarting Sendai, while a mere 30 percent supported it.
According to the Associated Press:
On Monday, dozens of protesters, including Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the Fukushima crisis, rallied outside the Sendai plant in a last-ditch effort to stop the restart, shouting "We don't need nuclear plants."
The Fukushima disaster "exposed the myth of safe and cheap nuclear power, which turned out to be dangerous and expensive. Why are we trying to resume nuclear power?" Kan told the crowd.
Other news reports had the number of protesters on Monday ranging from 100 to 400. Another demonstration was held on Sunday, with about 2,000 protesters marching around the heavily guarded Sendai plant to voice their opposition to the reactor restart.
"Past arguments that nuclear plants were safe and nuclear energy was cheap were all shown to be lies," said writer Satoshi Kamata, one of the demonstration organizers.
Local activists say the plant operators—Kyushu Electric—and local authorities have yet to explain how they would quickly evacuate tens of thousands of residents in the event of a Fukushima-style meltdown. As the Guardian reports, a recent survey by Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only two of 85 medical institutes and 15 of 159 nursing and other care facilities within a 20-mile radius of the Sendai plant had proper evacuation plans.
"There are schools and hospitals near the plant, but no one has told us how children and the elderly would be evacuated," Yoshitaka Mukohara, a representative of a group opposing the Sendai restart, told the Guardian. "Naturally there will be gridlock caused by the sheer number of vehicles, landslides, and damaged roads and bridges."
There are concerns, too, about restarting such a large fleet of mothballed reactors. Bloomberg reports:
Mothballed reactors have been turned back on in other parts of the world, though not on this scale—25 of Japan’s 43 reactors have applied for restart permits. One lesson learned elsewhere is that the process rarely goes smoothly. Of 14 reactors that resumed operations after being offline for at least four years, all had emergency shutdowns and technical failures, according to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency and regulators in the U.S. and Canada.
As Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Bloomberg by e-mail: "If reactors have been offline for a long time, there can be issues with long-dormant equipment and with 'rusty' operators."
But such worries have been eclipsed by corporate interests. "Utilities that have poured in billions of dollars into constructing a nuclear plant are going to fight very hard to operate them," Princeton University professor M.V. Ramana told Bloomberg. "Even in the face of overwhelming public opposition."
The 31-year-old Sendai No. 1 reactor is expected to reach full capacity next month, while a second reactor at the facility is likely to be restarted in October.