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Japan shuts down last nuclear reactor for tests. End of nuclear power?

If Japan survives the summer without power blackouts, citizens may pressure the government to make the temporary nuclear shutdown permanent.

By Correspondent / May 4, 2012

In this aerial photo taken April 22, three reactors, from left, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, are seen at the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant, operated by Hokkaido Electric Power Co., in Tomari in Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

Kyodo News/AP

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Tokyo

This weekend's nuclear shutdown in Japan is being greeted with a mixture of anxiety and optimism, just over a year since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident signaled the beginning of the end of the country's dependence on atomic energy.

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By May 6, the last of Japan's 50 working reactors – another four were crippled in the disaster – will be offline when the Hokkaido Electric Power Company closes the No. 3 unit at its Tomari plant in the far north, in the industry's first enforced closure in Japan since 1965.

Debate is now swirling around the prospects for the economy and environment post-Fukushima, as Japan braces itself for a long, hot summer and the possibility of power cuts that could prove the most severe test of public resolve yet.

Before the 11 March disaster, Japan relied on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity, and planned to increase its share to more than 50 percent by 2030.

To make up the shortfall in power production it has dramatically increased its dependence on liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal and oil for use in thermal power stations. LNG imports alone rose 52 percent in value to 5.4 trillion yen ($67 billion) in the year through March. 

That may have kept the lights on in the world's third-biggest economy, but it has also rung alarm bells among manufacturers and cast doubt on Japan's ability to meet greenhouse-gas emissions targets agreed on in Copenhagen in 2009.

In a preliminary report released this week, the government's national policy unit projected a 5 percent power shortage for Tokyo, while the Kansai Electric Power Company predicted a 16 percent power shortfall in western Japan, which includes the major industrial city of Osaka.

"I have to say we are facing the risk of a very severe electricity shortage," said the economy, trade and industry minister, Yukio Edano, adding that the extra cost of importing fuel for use in thermal power stations could be passed on to individual consumers though higher electricity bills.

Public mood

Despite the risks, Mr. Edano and other government ministers have failed to persuade local authorities to restart two reactors at Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, situated in western Japan – the first to pass mandatory stress tests to gauge their ability to withstand disasters such as the tsunami that sent three of Fukushima Daiichi's six reactors into meltdown.

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