Japan's Kyushu Electric Power Co. has turned on its first nuclear reactor at its Sendai power plant in southern Japan, making it the first reactor in the country to go back online after nuclear plants were shut down following the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant in 2011.
Another 24 reactors at 15 nuclear plants are in the process of being evaluated for restarting under new safety rules, and these include the second reactor at the nuclear plant. Of these, only three reactors, including the first one in Sendai, have been approved to restart. The plant's operator expects the reactor to start generating power by Friday and reach full capacity next month. The plant's second reactor is scheduled for a restart in October.
The restarting, however, is met with strong opposition from the public, spearheaded by former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was in office when the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant had a meltdown of three of its six reactors when an earthquake-triggered tsunami on March 11, 2011, cut the plant's power source. More than 160,000 residents in the area have been evacuated since then, and Tokyo Electric Power, which operated the plant, has to contend with a 40-year process to shut down the plant for good.
"Accidents are unpredictable, that's why they happen," Kan said during a protest held by some 300 individuals against the restarting. "And certainly not all the necessary precautions for such accidents have been taken here."
Another protester, Shouhei Nomura, used to work as an equipment maker for one of Japan's nuclear plants. At age 79, Nomura is now living in a makeshift camp near the Sendai plant to continuously call for the shutdown of nuclear plants.
"You will need to change where you evacuate to depending on the direction of the wind," Nomura said. "The current evacuation plan is nonsense."
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is intent on lowering the financial burden of importing costly fossil fuels into the resource-scarce nation, insists that the nuclear reactors meet the "world's most stringent regulation standards" on nuclear safety. Much of the cost has been passed down to consumers, whose electricity bills have shot up by 30 percent in the last few years. Additionally, Japan is trying to bring down its greenhouse gas emissions by limiting the use of fossil fuels.
"It would be impossible to achieve all these three things simultaneously – keep nuclear plants offline, while also trying to curb carbon dioxide and maintain the same electricity cost," said Yoichi Miyazawa, Japan's industry minister. "I hope to gain the public's understanding of the situation."
Despite the lingering problem at Fukushima, which continues to leak contaminated water out of its reactors, Japan hopes to provide 30 percent of the country's energy needs through nuclear energy by 2030.