Kyushu Electric Power Co said yesterday that it will restart the No 1 reactor at its Sendai nuclear plant this morning.
It marks Japan’s return to nuclear energy, breaking a four-and-a-half-year nuclear power impasse since the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant following an earthquake and tsunami.
The disaster displaced more than 100,000 people because of radioactive contamination in the area.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority affirmed the safety of the Sendai reactor and another one at the plant last September under stricter safety rules imposed after the accident, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. The plans call for the second reactor to be restarted in October.
The Sendai No 1 reactor is scheduled to start generating power on Friday and reach full capacity next month.
All of Japan’s 43 operable reactors are offline. Of those, 23, including the other Sendai reactor, have applied for safety inspections and are in the process of restart approvals. Shinzo Abe’s government wants as many of them as possible to be put online to sustain the nation’s economy, which now relies on imported energy.
“Our policy is to push forward restarts of reactors that cleared the world’s toughest safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority,” the prime minister said yesterday.
“I would like Kyushu Electric to put safety first and take utmost precautions for the restart.”
Under a basic energy plan adopted last year to sustain nuclear power as a key energy supply for resource-poor Japan, the government has set a goal for nuclear power to provide more than 20 per cent of the country’s energy needs by 2030. Despite the push by the government and utilities for nuclear restarts, most Japanese are opposed to a return to nuclear energy.
Residents near the Sendai plant are wary of the restarts, citing potential dangers from active volcanos in the region.
Dozens of protesters, including Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the Fukushima crisis, rallied outside the Sendai plant yesterday 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”, Mr Kan told the crowd. “Why are we trying to resume nuclear power?”
There are also concerns that evacuation plans in case of disasters may not work well, and experts fear there could be glitches in mothballed reactors.
With its nuclear fuel recycling programme stalled and plutonium stockpiles triggering concern, Japan is under pressure to use as much of its stockpiles as possible in its reactors.
Rose Gottemoeller, the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said Japan should complete its pending fuel recycling programme and burn plutonium as “Mox” fuel at reactors.
“If there is going to be a plutonium programme...the flip side of it is that there has to be a very vigorous Mox programme and that the Mox actually has to be burned in power plants,” Ms Gottemoeller said.
Japan has more than 40 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 40 to 50 nuclear weapons.