Eight years after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that led to the meltdown of several reactors in Fukushima, Japan’s nuclear industry is rebounding.
Tohoku Electric Power, whose Onagawa power plant was closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, has been given initial approval from the Japanese government to restart its Number 2 reactor.
The reactor, which has the same design as those that melted down at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi, was damaged by the 2011 tsunami, though its cooling system remained intact.
Eleven reactors at four nuclear plants in the region shut down automatically at the time the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit, but three reactors at the Daiichi plant melted down after the 15-metre tsunami disabled their power supply and cooling capabilities.
The Fukushima reactors have been decommissioned, and the prefecture has been earmarked as a $2.75 billion renewable energy hub, with 11 solar plants and 10 wind farms expected to generate up to 600 megawatts.
Nonetheless, Japan is pressing ahead with its nuclear programme – four reactors were restarted in 2018 and the country plans to generate 20% of its energy from its reactors by 2030.
A worldwide trend
Japan is not alone. Nuclear power production worldwide grew by 3.3% in 2018, with global generation reaching pre-Fukushima levels and nuclear plants meeting almost 10% of the increase in global demand for electricity.
And governments are continuing to invest in nuclear facilities because of their capacity for power generation. In the United States, which has 96 operational nuclear reactors, nuclear plants operated at 92.5% capacity in 2018 – higher than any other form of power. Unlike fossil fuel-based power plants, nuclear reactors don’t produce direct carbon dioxide emissions.
There are more than 50 nuclear reactors under construction around the world – 15 of them in China, which is aiming to have 58 gigawatt electrical (GWe) by 2020 as part of its efforts to reduce air pollution from coal-fired plants. Almost 70% of China’s reactors have been built in the past decade.
While there were no deaths as a result of the Fukushima nuclear incident, in its aftermath, there were widespread public protests calling for nuclear projects to be abandoned. The World Nuclear Association says nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity, and the risk of accidents at plants is low and declining.
Local authorities still need to agree to the restart of the Onagawa reactor before it can go ahead, but it seems nuclear will continue to be a part of Japan’s energy mix for some time to come.