Tanks of radiation-contaminated water are seen at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear plant in Fukushima. (Kyodo via Reuters)

Next month, Japan may restart its first nuclear reactor in nearly two years. It would be the first time since the tsunami-triggered meltdowns four years ago that the government’s new regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), has authorized the restart of a reactor.

The NRA was created to rebuild public trust in the wake of the devastating meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011. But the potential decision to enable a return to nuclear power to generate electricity is not supported by public opinion.

What has happened since the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdowns?

On March 11, 2011, a massive offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that disrupted cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and resulted in fuel and core meltdowns. The catastrophe, in turn, led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from surrounding areas, sparked a national debate about nuclear power, and caused the shutdown of all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors while new regulations and policies were formulated.

The NRA released new reactor regulations in July 2013 and has been conducting restart inspections since then. The agency has shown some independence from the nuclear industry and has ruled out restarts for a few plants located on active fault lines.

Earlier this month, the government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, released its target nuclear power supply for 2030: about 20 percent of the country’s electricity supply. But the public continues to oppose nuclear power.

Public opinion has flipped

Before the 2011 disasters, about 65 percent of the country supported expanding nuclear power. That proportion has flipped: Today, fully 70 percent of respondents in regular polls want to end nuclear power in the country. Most Japanese citizens support a plan by the previous administration, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s.

This opposition to nuclear power has continued despite energy cost increases for both individual consumers and for large, corporate consumers during the nuclear hiatus.

Some rural communities that host nuclear power plants want them to restart because they receive major subsidies from the production of nuclear power and are struggling without those. But these communities are exceptions to the general public stance.

The meltdowns’ victims have stayed in the news

Broad societal opposition is strengthened by ongoing news coverage of the fate of those residents who lived in towns near the site of the meltdowns. About 40,000 evacuees still live in temporary housing and face anxiety, depression and uncertainty about their future.

Repeated physical health surveys of the population from Fukushima prefecture have shown little evidence of major health consequences due to radiation exposure, although surveys done by the Minamisoma City Hospital showed a handful of individuals with high levels of internal exposure through the consumption of radioactive wild plants and mushrooms.

This is not to say that there have been no health consequences because of the meltdowns. As a recent peer-reviewed article by Fukushima doctors illuminated, the rushed evacuation of the elderly from nearby towns to shelters caused a large number of deaths. Mental health surveys have shown that levels of depression and anxiety are about two to three times as high among those living near the plants than among disaster-affected residents not living in such proximity to the site.

In response to concerns about radiation, the central government has promised lifetime health checkups for Fukushima residents, constructed indoor play-spaces for children to limit their exposure to radiation outside, and has pledged to monitor radiation levels in food. It has also paid for massive amounts of topsoil to be stripped off the land and bundled into plastic bags for storage elsewhere — currently in Fukushima prefecture itself, as attempts to find a longtime radioactive storage location have failed. The Abe administration also has gradually loosened entry restrictions on some of the villages and towns farther from the Fukushima accident site.

Public mistrust toward the government and the nuclear industry remains

Polls carried out by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science show that despite such measures, confidence in the government is low.

Confidence also remains low about the power utilities’ ability to handle cleaning up Fukushima and mitigating the consequences of any future accident. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, struggles to manage, store and treat about 90 million gallons of radioactive water at Fukushima and to begin the removal of spent fuel rods from the offline reactors. Because the company has used water from the ocean to cool the reactors and keep them from overheating, it now must pump saltwater out of the reactor buildings and remove the strontium, cesium and other radioactive isotopes (along with the salt) before releasing it into the ecosystem.

Regular leaks, sometimes of hundreds of tons of water, into the sea have angered environmental groups and brought harsh words from Tokyo. Tepco attempted an experimental underground “ice wall” that would freeze soil into a barrier surrounding the site to keep contaminated water from flowing into the water or sea. That containment system has yet to show results, and regular media reports of leaks from the site have done little to restore public confidence in the company.

Meanwhile, Japan has had other recent disasters — notably, the eruption of Mount Shindake — which have spurred debates about whether nuclear power is a safe bet on an island with active earthquake faults.

Court challenges to restarts

Civil society is not the only challenger to the restarts; some courts that typically have aligned with the central government have ruled with those opposed to nuclear power. Civic groups around Japan have filed challenges to reactor restarts in district courts, and one court ruled this spring to block the NRA-approved restart of a reactor. Although the owner of that reactor has vowed to appeal, it may take longer than a year for the case to reach the Supreme Court.

A plaintiffs’ group known as Liaison Group of Lawyers to Stop Nuclear Power has vowed to sue every utility seeking to restart its reactors. The public may have found the courts to be a favorable venue for voicing its concerns about nuclear power.

The Abe administration is pushing nuclear power nevertheless

Despite these social and legal challenges, the Abe administration’s energy policy has gone further than others in promoting the restoration of nuclear power’s role in Japan’s energy mix.

Pro-nuclear advocates offer several justifications for the restarts, mostly based on Japan’s increased use of imported fossil fuels while the nuclear reactors are shut down. They argue that Japan needs nuclear power to meet the country’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and the goals of lowering carbon dioxide emissions, achieving energy supply security and keeping electricity costs low for corporations.

With nuclear power offline, utilities have brought back mothballed coal and oil plants to generate electricity — increasing carbon dioxide emissions — and have raised prices across the country to compensate for the offline atomic plants. Business organizations such as Keidanren have supported the nuclear restarts, arguing that Japanese firms — already under stiff competition from nearby Asian competitors — need lower prices to stay in the game.

The government’s new energy-mix targets for 2030 call for nuclear power to provide about 20 percent of electricity, which translates to about 29 reactors. Twenty-four of Japan’s 43 operable reactors have applied for restart since the NRA began accepting applications in July 2013.

Even if all reactors that have applied for restart receive approval from the NRA and local governments, about five more reactors would need to restart by 2030 to meet the government’s energy-mix target.

What’s more, 10 of the reactors that have applied for restart will be more than 40 years old by 2030, and utilities must apply to the NRA for an extension to operate a reactor beyond the typical 40-year lifespan. The government’s energy plan assumes new reactor construction and/or reactor-lifetime extensions beyond 40 years.

Will nuclear power return?

Government aspirations for nuclear power diverge strongly from public sentiment. Whereas the current administration has pushed hard for nuclear energy despite opposition from the public, future decision makers may not have similar convictions. Further, future NRA and court rulings could significantly change the direction of Japan’s nuclear energy policy.

If the Liberal Democratic Party intends to achieve the nuclear power goal it has publicly announced, it must work to rebuild trust in it and Tepco, mitigate the anger among many Japanese about the decades of promises made about the safety of nuclear power, and resolve extensive technical challenges it will face in decades of cleanup and decommissioning.

Daniel P. Aldrich is full professor and co-director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University. James E. Platte is an Asia studies vsiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. Jennifer F. Sklarew is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy.