One of three reactors at Tomari nuclear plant in Hokkaido is going off line for maintenance checks this weekend. Once that reactor is switched off, the country will be free of atomic power for the first time since 1966.
This marks a remarkable change in electricity production for Japan. Before last year’s earthquake and tsunami, a third of the country’s energy came from nuclear power. For decades, nuclear power was a huge part of Japan’s energy policies and also became a major part of Japan’s plan to meet its bold carbon emissions reduction targets. With the loss of nuclear energy, the Ministry of Environment projects that Japan will produce about 15 percent more greenhouse gas emissions this fiscal year than it did in 1990.
Until the Fukushima disaster last year, Tokyo had planned to expand the amount of overall electricity produced by fission to half of all production by 2030. Since last year’s meltdown, however, citizen opposition to nuclear power has run high. Japan requires new tests on withstanding quakes and tsunamis, and it needs local residents’ approval to restart reactors. No reactor stopped for stress tests or maintenance has gone back on line.
Political and business leaders are worried about summer energy shortages and the effect it could have on the economy. Critics of Japan’s nuclear policy maintain that not enough has been done to improve nuclear safety standards. To make up for the shortage of fuel to produce electricity, Japan has ramped up imports of costly natural gas, but it is not certain that those imports will be able to keep up with demand with the hot and humid Japanese summer right around the corner.
This all underscores the difficulty in providing electricity to meet demand while reducing emissions without the use of nuclear power. Germany will be another interesting country to watch as they voluntarily shift to nuclear free production.