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The renuclearization of Japan

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Only three years after the catastrophic meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in March 2011, Japan is taking steps to revive its nuclear dream.

A rush to restart some of the country’s 48 mothballed commercial nuclear reactors is well under way. Hundreds of technicians from utility firms are camped out in downmarket Tokyo hotels, working at the beck and call of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the country’s new nuclear watchdog, in hope of meeting new safety requirements. On Feb. 25 the government published a draft energy plan which put nuclear power at its core.

It is a sharp reversal of the previous energy strategy, devised by the previous government in 2012, eventually to eliminate nuclear power altogether.

The sense of urgency is driven, first, by the mounting costs of doing without the nuclear plants. One by one, nearly all reactors were shut down in 2011-2012. Utilities fired up conventional power stations to make up for lost electricity generation, but the cost of importing extra oil, coal and gas has been all the steeper with a weak yen. The trade deficit has climbed, along with electric rates, particularly for businesses. Should nuclear plants be left idle, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s program to revive the economy could be in doubt.

Second, the establishment fears that time is running out. A fourth summer without nuclear power — but also without any sudden blackout to alarm the public — might permanently shift opinion against switching the plants back on. Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, says that people have noticed that the lights still are blazing and that the trains still are running. So, some 15 months after the L.D.P. returned to power, the government is ready to take the political risk of restarts. It is wary, however, of being thought to be doing so ahead of the agency charged with nuclear safety.

This month the N.R.A. is due to choose a few reactors to be fired up first. The most modern reactors, and those farthest from the Pacific coast and the threat of tsunamis, are at the head of the queue, and may be restarted as early as the summer. A favored candidate is the plant at Oi, on the west coast of the country’s main island. Two of its four reactors were the first to restart once before, in the summer of 2012, only to close again in September 2013. Public demonstrations in Tokyo accompanied their return to the grid. At the time Japan had not reformed its lax regime for regulating nuclear power.

Now the government hopes that the N.R.A., more independent than its ridiculed predecessor, will allay the public’s fears. The agency is replacing Japan’s shattered myth of absolute nuclear safety with the concept of "defense in depth," meaning multiple backup plans against a series of worst cases. Several reactors – such as those at Hamaoka, located near Tokyo above the Nankai trough, where two tectonic plates collide — may never restart.

However, the regulator, understaffed and still susceptible to political pressure, faces a daunting task.

As for the cozy "nuclear village" of utilities, heavy industry, bureaucrats and pro-nuclear media and politicians, it remains largely intact. Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, still bestrides the electricity industry, though its credibility with the public is gone. Abe can take comfort from the fact that the anti-nuclear movement appears spent as a political force, despite the backing of a hugely popular former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. In the Tokyo governor’s election last month, economic concerns trumped nuclear ones.

The first reactor will be the hardest to switch back on. After that, once the N.R.A. gives the all-clear, local governments hosting nuclear plants will waste no time. During the shutdown their economies have been deprived of generous subsidies from nuclear utilities. The governor of Niigata, which hosts Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest, is a loud critic of nuclear power, but last September even he gave permission for the utility to press ahead with its plan to restart reactors.

The long-run future of nuclear power is more uncertain. The age of today’s reactors means that new ones must soon be built, a detail that the government’s new energy plan skates over. Along with the Tokyo election, a governor’s race last month in Yamaguchi, the southern prefecture from which Abe hails, was closely watched for signs of the mood about new plants. For decades a battle has raged over one to be built in Kaminoseki, a small fishing town in the prefecture. The result, again, was defeat for anti-nuclear candidates.

The government has said that it may allow three other reactors already under construction before March 2011 to be completed. Only a short time ago, that would have been unthinkable.

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