Japan to go non-nuclear for at least half a year

Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (in red helmet) inspecting water tanks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

JAPAN - Japan, the first Asian country to adopt nuclear energy on a large scale, will have to depend entirely on non-nuclear sources of energy once again.

The only two nuclear reactors - at Ohi, Fukui Prefecture in western Japan - that have been running since July last year are being shut down for regular maintenance.

The country's other reactors which closed for maintenance have not been restarted largely as a result of public backlash after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

On Monday, workers at Ohi powered down one reactor. When the second is switched off on Sept 15, all of Japan's 50 reactors will be offline.

It takes at least half a year for nuclear authorities to inspect a reactor before it can be restarted. Which means Japan is likely to be without nuclear power this coming winter.

Besides, the growing troubles at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant 230km north of Tokyo could make it more difficult for utility companies to restart offline reactors in future.

Reports in recent weeks that radioactive water has leaked from storage tanks at Fukushima and has even drained into the ocean are likely to further dampen public enthusiasm for nuclear energy.

On Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed that the government would play a more direct role in dealing with the Fukushima mess.

Mr Abe said the government will "step forward and implement all necessary policies" to deal with the water issue. Officials said the government may unveil a "comprehensive" package of measures as early as on Tuesday.

Major discussions have been held off so far for fear that concerns over Fukushima could jeopardise Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

Mr Abe plans to make a last-minute pitch to the International Olympics Committee in person at its selection meeting on Saturday in Buenos Aires.

Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), which operates the Fukushima facility, had earlier been allowed to take a lead role in tackling its problems, but the utility seems increasingly overwhelmed by the task.

Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka on Monday blasted Tepco for its failure to closely monitor the tanks for storing the large amounts of water used to cool the damaged reactors.

"We have decided to go beyond regulating and to offer scientific advice to the operator," Dr Tanaka told reporters.

Following the massive 2011 quake and tsunami disaster, Japan's dependence on fossil fuels, especially liquid natural gas, rose substantially.

Unable to restart idled nuclear plants due to widespread public allergy towards nuclear energy, power companies fell back on conventional thermal power plants to make up for the loss.

The shutdown of nuclear reactors raises major questions for the energy needs of a country that currently has to import 84 per cent of its energy.

Mr Abe favours reviving the nuclear energy sector, a policy on which his strategy for economic recovery partly depends. Public sentiment, however, is against him.

A survey by Kyodo News in July found that 50.6 per cent of the Japanese oppose the restarting of nuclear power stations, versus 40.0 per cent that support it.

wengkin@sph.com.sg

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