Japan’s only operating nuclear reactor went offline on Monday for refueling and maintenance, but there was no definite timetable for a restart. The closure is the latest episode in Tokyo’s struggle with the nuclear power.
The government of Shinzo Abe has moved cautiously and judiciously on the nuclear power issue. The country’s network of nuclear plants, which once used to provide up to 30 percent of the national grid’s power, has been shut down for thorough safety checks since the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. It’s believed that the Reactor 4 at Ohi in western Japan will remain offline until December at the earliest, leaving Japan with no nuclear electricity for the longest period since the 1960s.
Public opinion in Japan has turned against nuclear power since the Fukushima meltdown, the largest nuclear disaster since a fire at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986. The catastrophe had also triggered a global fear and debate about the safety of nuclear reactors, with people in many countries calling for the phasing out of this power generation method and governments have found themselves under huge pressure to tighten safety standards and even close down plants. For example, in Germany, Angela Merkel, who is both a scientist and politician, promised to phase out nuclear power by 2022.
Japan acted expeditiously on its nuclear plants after winning the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. The Fukushima tragedy wasn’t a factor in the selection vote, but those who voted for Japan were confident that the government of Abe will resolve the issue much before the games date. And the government has lived up to those expectations.
As Japan continues to act in its own way, the global debate on nuclear power will continue and remain a conundrum, with strong arguments for and against. This is an issue that will take time before a definitive solution is found. The public opinion all over the world so far has been mixed: its supporters argue that nuclear power still offers affordable low-carbon electricity and is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Its opponents maintain benefits of nuclear power are too insignificant compared to the dangers it poses. Human life takes precedence over everything else, they argue, and environmental costs are said to be too high. The public indecision is illustrated by opinion polls. A recent poll in Britain showed that almost half the population were in favour of government investment in nuclear power, while the rest were either opposed or didn’t know.
However, governments everywhere need to go for stringent safety standards and leave no room for mistake. The problem with nuclear power is that one mistake that spins out of control is enough to undo all the gains of this technology•