In the aftermath of March 2011 meltdowns in Fukushima that contaminated 700 square miles with radiation and forced 150,000 to flee their homes, most never to return, Japan’s utility companies paused nearly all nuclear-related projects. The accident sparked a global debate about nuclear power, but it was especially fierce in Japan, where all 50 operable reactors were taken offline and work was halted on three new plants where building had been underway.
But two of the existing reactors are back in action, and the resumption of construction at the Oma Nuclear Power Plant here — a project that broke ground in 2008 and was halted by the operator, J-Power, after the accident — marks the clearest sign yet that the stalemate is breaking.
The green light for the new plan was, at its root, a bet by the energy company that Japan will come to again support and rely on nuclear power, which provided some one-third of Japan’s electricity before the Fukushima crisis.
Analysts say that predicting the direction of Japan’s atomic future is difficult and that J-Power’s decision is a risky one — even with a pro-nuclear party back in power — because a majority here opposes long-term nuclear dependence.
Still, experts see modest evidence of nuclear power’s resiliency. Japan has traditionally built its nuclear plants in far-flung towns that depend on the facilities for the subsidies and tax dollars — as well as the jobs — they bring. Consumers and big businesses fear the long-term economic pain of a nuclear phaseout — increased dependence on imported fossil fuels, annual trade deficits, higher energy bills.
At the national level, Japan has cycled through three prime ministers since Fukushima — the first fiercely anti-nuclear, the next moderately anti-nuclear, the current one cautiously pro-nuclear. The previous ruling party tried last fall to plot a nuclear phaseout by the 2030s, but anti-nuclear advocates say the pledge was watered down to the point of being meaningless. The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, plans this month to convene the latest in a series of expert panels to help overwrite the phaseout plan, and its makeup suggests that he prefers a role for nuclear power.
Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, which swelled after the Fukushima accident, could still play a role, but it is politically disorganized and has grown quieter in recent months. Individual activists cite the resumption at Oma as controversial but note that the move did not prompt mass-scale protests.