Japan Restarts First Nuclear Reactor Since Fukushima Crisis

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

A woman takes part in an anti-nuclear demonstration to demand a stop to the resumption of nuclear power operations in Tokyo, Japan on July 1, 2012.

This weekend, Japan re-entered the nuclear age. A reactor at the Ohi nuclear power plant was reactivated on Sunday, the first power plant to go back online since the nation closed all its reactors in the wake of the Fukushima crisis over a year ago.

The reactivation didn’t pass without controversy, or — unusual in an infamously orderly nation — without protest. According to the Associated Press, tens of thousands of people clamored outside Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s home last Friday, chanting “No to nuclear restarts.” Noda, who ordered the Ohi reactor be switched on, said that it was needed to sustain Japan’s energy supplies. Before the tsunami, nuclear energy powered approximately 30% of Japan’s power.

(MORE: At Edge of Japan’s Nuclear Zone, Residents Face an Uncertain Future)

At the plant itself, located on Japan’s western coast near the city of Kyoto, police were called in to rein in hundreds of demonstrators. Taisuke Kohno, a 41-year-old musician, planned to stay at the plant day and night. “It’s a lie that nuclear energy is clean,” he told the Associated Press. “After experiencing the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how can Japan possibly want nuclear power?”

However, without the reactors, the country faces a serious power shortage the very real possibility of blackouts in some regions. Since the Fukushima plant forced the evacuation of thousands of people last year, the government has started looking for more reliable energy options, including renewable sources.

(MORE: An Atomic Shadow: Life Inside a Japanese Nuclear Village)

The Ohi plant, has not been operating since it was shut down last year and is expected to help power the region’s cities. All of Japan’s active reactors have been offline since May 5, when the government decided to institute safety checks.

Kansai Electric Power Company, which operates Ohi, has not made a public statement other than the message on its website explaining that a nuclear reaction was restarted Sunday afternoon. From the AFP’s latest accounts, the reactor finally managed to reach a self-sustaining reaction, and is expected to start delivering electricity Wednesday.

Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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Felicity Tillack
Felicity Tillack

I disagree with Matthew Johnson. It doesn't take a 'black swan' event to cause dangerous accidents at nuclear plants.

The accident at Tokai reactor, 100 kilometres south of Fukushima killed workers 10 years earlier.

The fast breeder plutonium reactor in Oi was off-line for over a year when they dropped a tool into it and multiple attempts to recover the tool were unsuccessful. That plant is cooled by liquid sodium, which as you may remember from chemistry, reacts explosively to air and water. Fun times. Oi is probably sitting on a fault line.

Niigata reactor released contaminated water into the ocean during a much weaker earthquake a few years ago.

Fukushima has caused untold damage, both to Japan and the world. It maybe that this level of damage only occurs during 'black swan events', but when they happen (and how many different kinds are there to have? Earthquakes, tornadoes, huge typhoons, tsunamis, meteor strikes...) millions of lives are affected. We could have lost Tokyo. What level of horrific accident will it take to finally change?

Matthew Johnson
Matthew Johnson

Of course there are protests. But of course, they were going to have to turn them back on eventually. I just hope that enough people have learned from the errors at Fukushima to run it more safely this time.

And while we are on the topic of safety, if not for "black swan events" like this tsunami, they could have got away with doing what they did at Fukushima for years without dangerous incident.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

 If I remember correctly, TEPCO was already looking at phasing out Fukushima anyway because the plant was so old that its metal structure was starting to get brittle from all the radiation bombardment.

This is why China has said it may not build any more nuclear reactors with Gen II technology and build only reactors that can safely shut down even if the coolant is cut off. It's also why there is renewed interest in the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), a reactor that uses thorium-232 dissolved in molten sodium fluoride salt as fuel (that's why they're called molten salt reactors). Unlike conventional reactors, LFTR's don't need expensive pressurized reactor vessels, can be safely shut down just by dumping the molten salt solution out of the reactor, and the radioactive waste generated is very small and has a very short half-life (under 300 years), which means cheap waste disposal (if the medical industry doesn't grab it first for nuclear medicine!).


Actually, graffiti is a crime.