Japan powered down its last nuclear reactor earlier this year to make the world’s third-largest economy nuclear free for the first time in almost half a century. The closure of the Tomari plant in northern Japan came a year after the devastating tsunami that led to the meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The disaster has led to a dramatic reappraisal of energy policy in Japan, with the country’s remaining 50 plants closed down for maintenance and safety checks. How many are switched back on remains to be seen. (Japan announced plans on June 16 to bring two plants back online; on July 1, a reactor reboot was initiated at the Ohi nuclear facility.) In the tsunami’s aftermath, then–Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded to mounting public opposition to the nuclear industry by calling for Japan to transition to other forms of energy. Plans to almost double Japan’s nuclear energy production by 2030 were ditched. The new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, however, has since softened Japan’s stance, arguing that the country cannot afford the costs of importing conventional fuel to meet the energy shortfall. But Noda faces a challenge to convince nuclear skeptics that turning the reactors back on is necessary.
Last summer Japan managed to avoid blackouts by imposing curbs on consumption. Factories operated at night and during the weekends to ease the pressure on the national grid. Similar triage this year would bolster nuclear opponents, despite the cost of importing extra fuel leading to higher prices. Japan’s liquefied natural gas imports climbed 18 percent in volume and 52 percent in value to ¥5.4 trillion (US$67 billion) in the year through March. Yet two-thirds of the country remains opposed to restarting any of the country’s reactors. Japan’s energy policy may lie in tatters, but its decision, if temporary, to go nuclear free has made it the vanguard of the West, where many counties, including Germany, are considering energy alternatives.