TOKYO — Japan will once again be without atomic energy as its only operating nuclear reactor goes offline Sunday for refueling and maintenance, and other plants remain closed for intensified safety checks following the 2011 meltdowns at the tsunami-stricken plant in Fukushima.
But despite signs that the Fukushima crisis is worsening, Japan’s commitment to restarting many of its 50 idled reactors appears stronger than ever, a year after a previous government said it would begin to phase out nuclear power completely.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December, says nuclear power remains essential, even with a surge in generation capacity from solar, wind and other renewable sources, and that the world’s No. 3 economy cannot afford the mounting costs from importing gas and oil.
Four nuclear plant operators have applied to restart a dozen reactors under revised safety guidelines, though the pace will be relatively slow, with the first expected to come online early next year at the earliest. Inspections take about six months for each reactor, and obtaining consent from local governments may also take time.
Only two reactors have been operating in Japan since July 2012, both at Ohi in the west. The No. 3 reactor went offline for maintenance on Sept. 2, and the No. 4 reactor is being shut down Sunday night. They are among the dozen that have applied to restart.
The Ohi plant’s operator, Kansai Electric Power Co., began reducing the No. 4 reactor’s output Sunday evening as planned, with its complete shutdown expected after midnight.
The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the worst atomic accident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, prompted a rethink of plans to raise nuclear capacity from one-third to over half of total demand.
Even with little to no nuclear power, Japan has managed to avoid power rationing and blackouts. Industries have moved aggressively to avoid disruptions by installing backup generators and shifting to new sources, such as solar power.